In an op-ed published by The New York Times, Tim Berners-Lee announced that he has a new initiative that he says is meant to "make the online world a place worth being in." That's a pretty ambitious goal, even for the man who gets credit for inventing the World Wide Web.

I don't think anyone would argue that the internet, in its current form, has some serious problems. In fact, there is many, many ways in which the internet is a mess. 

For example, there are few places more tribal than the internet, and those tribes have made it hard to break through the noise and have reasonable conversations with people who hold different opinions. (I'm looking at you, Twitter.)

Then there's the fact that most of the internet is built on the idea that you can use it for free, as long as you don't mind surrendering your personal information and private data. That is, after all, how the big tech companies make the enormous amounts of profit they bring in each year: monetizing your personal information.

And, of course, there's the fact that the internet is full of bad actors who have much darker intentions when it comes to your information. I write about cybersecurity issues on a regular basis, and even I can't keep up with each data breach and new online scam. And that isn't even the worst of it.

Can those (and other) problems really be fixed with a plan? These are huge, systemic issues that run far deeper than any individual company or even industry.

Sure, there are a few levers you can pull to positively change the internet as we know it. Except, the thing about a lever is that with a small amount of force, you can exert a far greater amount of change. That's why they're so useful, but it's also why they're so dangerous--especially in the hands of the government. It's difficult to anticipate the collateral effects of that small amount of force over something as complicated as the World Wide Web.

Looking at his site, Contract for the Web, you'll see a few big-name backers including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a collection of foreign governments. And, in his op-ed, Berners-Lee lays out two ideas that he believes will help make the internet better. 

For example, he says:

Governments must support their citizens online and ensure that their rights are protected through effective regulation and enforcement.

Maybe I'm missing something, but exactly which rights? Privacy? Sure, that's great, but if the government plans to regulate the internet more than it already does, there are a few other rights I suspect will end up coming into play. You know, like perhaps the freedom of speech? 

Here's the thing, rights are meant to restrict what the government is able to do, and as soon as it puts into place regulation to "protect" one right, what it's really doing is prioritizing one right above another. Which is great until you find yourself on the wrong side of that equation. 

Second, he asserts that:

Companies must look beyond next-quarter results and understand that long-term success means building products that are good for society and that people can trust them.

Again, this sounds great, especially the "trust" part. I think that tech companies, in general, suffer from a huge trust deficit. And, I agree that short-term thinking that focuses only on the next quarterly earnings release doesn't really benefit anyone.

But, and I know this isn't the "woke" argument, but if you're going to say that "long-term success' is defined by something other than profitability or shareholder return, shouldn't you say more about what you mean by "good for society?" I'm pretty sure there are a bunch of people with 401(k)'s and pension plans deeply invested in these companies that are counting on tech creators to do more than just nod in the direction of "doing the right thing." 

The bottom line is that the problem with the internet is our problem, and it isn't one you can change with rules, or policies, or regulations. It isn't even one you can change with a "contract." It'll take a far bigger change than that--a change in us--and no plan from anyone, even someone as smart as Berners-Lee can force that change. 

Published on: Nov 25, 2019
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