Web Inventor Wants Regulation of the Social Networks

Pat Wise
March 13, 2018

On the World Wide Web's 29th birthday, the technology's inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has published an open letter highlighting some of the biggest threats the internet is facing nowadays, and has suggested a few solutions. He also urged supporting policies that help women and the poor to have access to the web, plus the skills to compete in today's digital world.

The divide between people who have internet access and those who do not is deepening existing inequalities - inequalities that pose a serious global threat.

Tim Berners-Lee has written an open letter describing how to clean up the web.

Big problems: Just "a handful of platforms. control which ideas and opinions are seen", says Berners-Lee.

In particular, Berners-Lee is anxious about the web being "weaponized" in order to spread conspiracy theories, "stoke social tensions" through the use of fake social media accounts, and steal people's personal data.

He blames the concentration of power as the reason for the lack of innovation, explaining how dominant platforms don't give room and create "barriers for competitors", instantly acquiring startups who challenge them. "That's an entire generation left behind", Berners-Lee warned.

He suggests that some sort of regulation or legal framework that takes into account social objectives could at lease ease the issue.

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In many African countries, for example, 1GB of mobile broadband data cost more than 10 percent of the average income, according to a 2016 survey by the Alliance for Affordable Internet.

The inventor goes on to say that these so-called gatekeepers buy up innovations and talent in a bid to lock their position on the web.

"The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale", he wrote.

This concentration of power makes it possible to "weaponise the web at scale", evidenced by the spread of conspiracy theories, fake social media accounts created to sow discord, state-level interference in elections and cybercriminals able to steal "troves of personal data". The responsibility-and sometimes burden-of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good.

Two myths now limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it's too late to change the way platforms operate. It may sound utopian, it may sound impossible to achieve after the setbacks of the last two years, but I want us to imagine that future and build it. "Greater ambition" for the web Berners-Lee is joining tech leaders including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in calling for regulation for tech giants.

Aligning the incentives of the technology sector with those of users and society at large, he argued, will require consulting a diverse group of people from business, government, civil society, academia and the arts.

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