The British web inventor urged more effective regulation of targeted political adverts drawing on vast stores of personal data
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has called on users to help pressure governments and corporations over issues such as misinformation and data abuse – trends about which he said he has become “increasingly worried” over the past year.
In an open letter published to coincide with the 28th anniversary of his initial proposal for the web, Berners-Lee named the spread of misinformation, users’ loss of control over their personal data and the spread of targeted political advertising as three developments that are preventing the web from fulfilling its potential as a “tool which serves all of humanity”.
The issues are closely interrelated, as well, with political campaigns increasingly drawing on large amounts of personal data to form highly targeted adverts that in some cases make use of “fake news”.
“Some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls,” Berners-Lee wrote. “We urgently need to close the ‘Internet blind spot’ in the regulation of political campaigning.”
The collection of personal data has allowed users to access free services, but in permitting mass data collection users are “missing a trick”, he wrote.
“As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it,” he wrote.
A side-effect of this system sees the data being provided to governments, which are “also increasingly watching our every move online”, something that “creates a chilling effect on free speech” and stops users from discussing topics such as health issues, sexuality or religion.
Meanwhile, ‘fake news’ isn’t only a political issue, but has become endemic online due to an economic system that rewards sites for displaying content users are likely to click on, Berners-Lee said.
The result is that misinformation can “spread like wildfire”, he wrote.
He said users should pressure online companies and governments to give users more control of their data, by advancing other forms of revenue generation such as micro-payments or subscriptions and using the courts to fight “extreme laws”.
He urged “gatekeepers” such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts against misinformation, but argued central bodies designating what is true should be avoided.
“We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed,” he wrote. “It is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”
Berners-Lee isn’t the online online pioneer to call for some of the web’s unsavoury side-effects to be restrained, with Vint Cerf, who helped develop the TCP/IP protocol and commercial email, also acknowledging the spread of misinformation and personal data abuse.
At the SXSW conference on Sunday Cerf called such issues a “sociological problem”. “Our technology has outraced our intuition about its social consequences,” he said.
He said that in addition to technical measures it is up to users to stand up against such abuses, likening such social pressures to the force of gravity.
“Gravity is the weakest force… but when you get big mass, it’s powerful,” he said.
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