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[liberationtech] Three challenges for the web, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee #HappyBirthdayWWW

Cecilia Tanaka cecilia.tanaka at
Sun Mar 12 05:56:48 PDT 2017


"Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor."

Web Foundation · March 12, 2017

Today is the world wide web’s 28th birthday. Here’s a message from our
founder and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee on how the web has
evolved, and what we must do to ensure it fulfils his vision of an
equalising platform that benefits all of humanity.

This letter is also available en français, en español, em português
and بالعربية.


Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the
world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would
allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities
and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many
ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a
recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve
become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we
must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a
tool which serves all of humanity.

1)   We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in
exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by
accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but
fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in
exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. 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. What’s more, we often do not
have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not
share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts.
Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments
are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing
extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive
regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can
be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But
even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best
interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going
too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web
from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive
health issues, sexuality or religion.

2)   It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a
handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make
more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose
what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data
that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these
sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that
misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or
designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through
the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions
can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or
political gain.

3)   Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated
industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a
few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing
upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are
now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source
suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of
adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a
near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that
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. Targeted advertising
allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting
things to different groups. Is that democratic?


These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But
a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together
with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data
control back in the hands of people, including the development of new
technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring
alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We
must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws,
including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against
misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook
to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the
creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. 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. We urgently need to close the
“internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.

Our team at the Web Foundation will be working on many of these issues
as part of our new five year strategy – researching the problems in
more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing
together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal
power and opportunity to all. I urge you to support our work however
you can – by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies and
governments or by making a donation. We’ve also compiled a directory
of other digital rights organisations around the world for you to
explore and consider supporting too.

I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what
it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos,
applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of
millions of you around the world building our online community. All
kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web
open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power,
accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have
protested in the streets. In the past year, we have seen Nigerians
stand up to a social media bill that would have hampered free
expression online, popular outcry and protests at regional internet
shutdowns in Cameroon and great public support for net neutrality in
both India and the European Union.

It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to
all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.  If you would like
to be more involved, then do join our mailing list, do contribute to
us, do join or donate to any of the organisations which are working on
these issues around the world.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The Web Foundation is at the forefront of the fight to advance and
protect the web for everyone. We believe doing so is essential to
reverse growing inequality and empower citizens. You can follow our
work by signing up to our newsletter, and find a local digital rights
organisation to support here on this list. Additions to the list are
welcome and may be sent to contact at

Please share this letter on Twitter using the hashtag #HappyBirthdayWWW

"Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or
your curiosity.  It's your place in the world; it's your life.  Go on
and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live."  -
 Mae Jemison

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