Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Founder of the World Wide Web (WWW) has expressed concern over three challenges faced by the web.
Berners-Lee, in a statement on its 28th anniversary, listed the issues as loss of control of privacy, misinformation or fake news and transparency in political advertising online.
The inventor, who noted that the web had lived up to its vision in spite of the recurring battle to keep the web open, said that the challenges needed to be addressed quickly.
”Over the past 12 months, I have become increasingly worried about three new trends. I believe we must tackle them, in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.”
According to him, the issue of loss of control of personal data occurs as many websites offer free content in exchange for personal data.
He said many people were tricked into allowing their information to be collected by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions in exchange for free services.
“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 such data and chose when and with whom to share it.
This widespread data collection by companies has made governments to increasingly watch our every move online and to pass extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.
In repressive regimes, it is 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,” Berners-Lee said.
The inventor said it was becoming too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.
He explained that most people found news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines which made money when people clicked on the links they showed them.
“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 will click on.
With that, misinformation or ‘fake news’ which is surprising, shocking or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.
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,” Berners-Lee said.
He said that the issue of transparency in political advertising online was another trend on the web which was rapidly becoming a sophisticated industry.
“Political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 U.S. election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor.
There are suggestions that some political adverts in the U.S. 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,” he said.
Berners-Lee emphasised the need to develop new technology like personal ‘data pods’ and to explore alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments.
“People must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts, if necessary.”
According to him, people must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem.
He also said that web users should avoid the creation of any central bodies to decide what was 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 follow. We urgently need to close the ‘internet blind spot’ in the regulation of political campaigning,” Berners-Lee said.
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