WWW inventor says the Web is "under threat"

Darnell Taylor
March 13, 2018

Instead of hosting their own platform, web users have clustered around a few centralised systems.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has warned that major technology firms, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, have so much power they could use it to "weaponise the web".

He also points out that we need to get away from the idea that advertising in the only possible business model, branding it a myth.

He suggested that a legal or regulatory framework that "accounts for social objectives" could help in an industry that's created to maximize profit instead of the "social good". This year marks a milestone in the web's history: "for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world's population will be online", he wrote.

Berners-Lee, whose Web Foundation campaigns for a more open and inclusive internet, doubted that companies that have been built to maximise profits can adequately address the problem on a voluntary basis.

Failure to invest in closing the gap between the connected and unconnected - many of whom are poor, female and in low-income areas and countries - will deny the last billion people on earth internet access until 2042.

The open letter comes a year after Mr Berners-Lee called for tighter regulation of online political advertising, which he said was being used in "unethical ways". That's an entire generation left behind.

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"In 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food", said the 62-year-old British computer scientist.

But Berners-Lee believes that the companies which have become the web's gatekeepers can not be relied on to fix the problem, thanks to loyalty to their shareholders rather than society at large. The reality, however, is that we're still a long way off from reaching this target - in some countries, the cost of 1GB of mobile broadband remains more than 20 percent of average monthly income.

Lastly, Berners-Lee believes there needs to be a greater discussion about the web and how it can be improved.

Two myths now limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it's too late to change the way platforms operate. Even though he has been talking about the problems with the web for many years, now he seems to be saying things are at their worst as he referred to the "setbacks of the last two years".

Ultimately, Berners-Lee wants to turn the web into something that will "reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions".

Aligning the incentives of the technology sector with those of users and society at large, he argued, will require consulting a diverse group of people from business, government, civil society, academia and the arts. Let's work together to make it possible.

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