Sir Tim Berners-Lee addressing conference

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: regulation of tech giants could fix ‘threatened’ Web

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In an open letter to mark the 29th birthday of the World Wide Web, its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned that the Web is “under threat” and called for creative solutions – including the possibility of regulation – to fix its problems.

These problems include the gap in internet access between rich and poor, the stifling of innovation in the tech sector and the growing “weaponisation” of the Web.

According to Berners-Lee, more than half of the world’s population will be online by the end of the year and connecting the remaining half – bridging the “digital divide” – remains a priority. He warned that this divide deepens existing inequalities, and must be resolved with policies and business models that expand access to the poorest in society using public access solutions, such as community networks and public Wi-Fi initiatives.

In his letter, he also argues that the variation which previously existed on the web has been “compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms [which] control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared”. This is achieved by acquiring start-ups and new innovations, hiring the best technological talent in the industry, and utilising their huge user datasets. This is a serious issue, he wrote, in that it will stifle innovation online and limit the type of content users have access to in the future.

Most notably, Berners-Lee condemned the mass “weaponisation” of the Web, which may be stirring social tensions and rendering the Web a hostile environment.

“The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the Web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data,” he wrote.

According to Berners-Lee, the tech giants themselves have been built to put profit ahead of anything else, including social responsibility, and have demonstrated that they are not willing to voluntarily provide solutions to this problem. He suggests that legal or regulatory framework may be necessary to ease tensions. Ideally, this would involve contributions from a diverse range of people in society, in addition to businesses, government and academics.

Already, the German government has introduced regulations requiring that social media companies remove hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours, or else face heavy fines. Meanwhile, other world leaders – including Prime Minister Theresa May – have suggested voluntary action to take on hate speech and harassment.

Berners-Lee called for more creative solutions to these problems in order to challenge damaging myths about the Web, such as that advertising is essential and that the way it works today set in stone. He suggested viewing the problems facing the Web as being like bugs which were created by – and can be fixed by – people.

“Today I want us to challenge us all to have greater ambitions for the Web. I want the Web to reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, at the high-profile South by South West (SXSW) tech conference in Austin, Texas, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan will condemn the UK government for failing to regulate tech giants appropriately and ensure that technological advances benefit all members of society. Mirroring some of Berners-Lee’s arguments, Khan will insist that social media companies take responsibility for clamping down on hate speech or else face tough regulation, including the possibility of hefty fines.

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