Addressing privacy and fake news on the web: Tim Berners-Lee’s call to action

Tim Berners-Lee

The recent rise and spread of so-called fake news is a topic that’s generating a great deal of opinion on what to do about it. I’ve weighed in, too, in a recent episode of the Small Data Forum podcast.

Now, on the 28th anniversary of the founding of the World Wide Web, its creator Tim Berners-Lee offers compelling perspectives on this contemporary phenomenon, outlining three challenges for the web and, as he puts it, what we must do to ensure it fulfils his vision of an equalizing platform that benefits all of humanity:

  1. We’ve lost 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 but we’re missing a trick. 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 this data, and chose when and with whom to share it…
  2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. 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…
  3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding. 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. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor…

That last one is an especially hot topic – Brexit and Trump are two words that align well to the need Berners-Lee speaks of – which is a primary focus in the Guardian’s summary of the matter.

Yet all of what Berners-Lee writes about is something that concerns every one of us, especially as he doesn’t offer easy solutions. So consider Berners-Lee’s open letter as a call to action to all of us:

I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have protested in the streets […] 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.

Read Tim Berners-Lee’s open letter: Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor. The letter is also available en françaisen español, em português and in Arabic.

(Photo at top via World Wide Web Foundation)

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