Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist and father of the World Wide Web, says three trends are threatening the future of a free and open internet that serves humanity. In an open letter to mark the Web's 28th birthday, Berners-Lee explains how it can avoid the dangers it is currently courting.
The first trend that threatens the Web, Berners-Lee writes, is the fact that humans have lost control of their personal data online. The underlying business model for many websites and mobile applications is an exchange--users can enjoy free content or services in exchange for their personal data. But this exchange has become problematic because users cannot control where their data goes or how it's used.
Berners-Lee says Web users should work with tech companies to "strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people," he writes. He proposes developing "personal data pods," so each person's information is secure until the user decides when to release information. To gain access to a site or service, people can release their data, like showing an ID when entering a bar. Companies and users can form different relationships based on short-term access to user data, or a person can sell their data to companies for micro-payments, he suggests.
The second dangerous online trend, according to Berners-Lee, is the dissemination of misinformation and fake news. Berners-Lee says fake news posing as truth has successfully spread lies and misinformation because the creators of fake news have learned how to game social media sites and search engines. When a fake news story goes viral, amassing a bigger and bigger audience, companies like Facebook and Google make money off those clicks, Berners-Lee says.
To fight misinformation, Berners-Lee says that people need to encourage "gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook" to combat the problem. Facebook hired fact checkers to shift through content and Google is banning publishers that create fake news. But Berners-Lee also warns about the danger of a central body with the power to decide "what is 'true' or not," he writes.
Lastly, Berners-Lee says there needs to be transparency in online political advertising, which he says has incredible influence and is not regulated. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump's team built a powerful digital marketing tool for the campaign. According to a piece by Bloomberg, Trump's digital campaign was able to run micro-targeted campaigns on social media sites to specific groups of people to encourage voting or discourage voting, depending on the group being targeted. Bloomberg reported that Trump's digital operation, in an effort to discourage black voter turnout, would serve targeted messages about how Hillary Clinton used the racially charged term "super predators." Berners-Lee says some online political advertising is "unethical" and he'd like to see the industry adopt rules and regulations.
"Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups," writes Berners-Lee. "Is that democratic?"
The Web has helped usher in an era of more democracy and knowledge, but it can also be used to suppress and subjugate, Berners-Lee says. He says it's up to entrepreneurs and citizens to make sure the internet fosters equality.
"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," writes Berners-Lee.