March 12, 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted a document in which it set out its vision for what would become the World Wide Web. 28 years later, Berners-Lee is proud of what has become his creation, but an open letter published on the Foundation Web site highlights the challenges facing the Web today.
“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 the humanity,” wrote Berners-Lee.
The first problem to which it refers is the loss of 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,” said Tim Berners-Lee.
However there is something that escapes us in this mechanism because the data is stored in proprietary silos, out of our reach, we lose the benefits they could achieve.
“If we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it,” he wrote and lamented the lack of a return channel for users.
Furthermore, Berners-Lee fears the consequences of how governments get access to this data via the relationships they have with the companies which collect or “coercion” of the same.
Another problem highlighted by the founder of the Web is that of false news, despite the efforts made by Facebook, Google, and other companies to counter it.
“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,” he says. “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.”
In relation to the problem of false news, Tim Berners-Lee stresses that online political advertising must be transparent.
“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,” he said.
Recently, the Web Foundation has launched a strategy for the next five years to address these and other issues, in line with its mission of developing an open network, understood as a public good and a fundamental right.