Sir Tim Berners-Lee Slams Tech Giants On Web’s 29th Birthday

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The British web inventor has called for affordable internet access, while questioning the online control exercised by big tech players

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has warned that the web is still facing threats, not the least of which comes from dominant tech players who are stifling innovation.

And in his second open letter, he said that the problem is that power is concentrated among so few companies, and has called on them to be regulated to prevent the web from being “weaponised at scale”.

It was this time last year when Sir Tim Berners-Lee called in his first open letter on users to help pressure governments and corporations over issues such as misinformation and data abuse.

Web gatekeepers

The letter from Sir Tim Berners-Lee comes on the day that the World Wide Web has turned 29 years old, after the British scientist working at CERN granted public access to the platform he had created.

Sir Tim pointed out that the web will this year reach a tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online. And he urged people to close the digital divide by supporting affordable online access in poorer countries, so that we do not deepen existing inequalities going forward.

But Sir Tim perhaps reserved his harshish comments for the web’s current gatekeepers, who are effectively stifling innovation and are thus able to “weaponise the web at scale”.

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today,” Sir Tim wrote. “What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.”

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors,” he wrote. “They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.”

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale,” he noted. “In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.”

Regulatory framework

He said the current situation means that these gatekeepers “which have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good” are often the only ones making decisions to regulate the online world.

Sir Tim thinks that it may be time for “a legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.”

Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future,” he urged.

Sir Tim isn’t the online online pioneer to call for some of the web’s unsavoury side-effects to be restrained.

Vint Cerf, who helped develop the TCP/IP protocol and commercial email, has also previously acknowledged the spread of misinformation and personal data abuse.

Quiz: Do you understand the language of the Internet?