The web inventor says the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the spread of divisiveness via social media show the ‘optimism has cracked’
Tim Berners-Lee has suggested large internet companies may have to be broken up to avoid excessive “concentration”, unless competition or other changes make it unnecessary to do so.
Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN in 1989, but said that since the 1990s a handful of US-based companies have come to dominate the technology.
“What naturally happens is you end up with one company dominating the field so through history there is no alternative to really coming in and breaking things up,” Berners-Lee told Reuters.
Pace of change
The combined market capitalisation of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook is $3.7 trillion (£2.84tn), the same as Germany’s 2017 gross domestic product.
But Berners-Lee said the rapid pace of change that brought companies such as Google and Facebook to prominence could also see them become quickly irrelevant.
“Before breaking them up, we should see whether they are not just disrupted by a small player beating them out of the market, but by the market shifting, by the interest going somewhere else,” he said.
Berners-Lee, a professor at Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was “disappointed” at scandals such as the way Cambridge Analytica used the personal Facebook data of 87 million people for political campaign purposes.
He called that incident a tipping point for many web users.
“I am disappointed with the current state of the web,” Berners-Lee said. “We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked.”
He said social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook seem more prone to spread divisiveness than anything positive.
“If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly,” he said. “And you wonder: ‘Well, is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?’”