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The web at 30: trust and truth special

Digital technology has developed so fast in just one generation that our ability to regulate it hasn’t been able to keep up. How can we know what’s true or trustworthy when we don’t understand its origins?

I remember when that new-fangled thing called the ‘world wide web’ started to enter the public consciousness in the mid-1990s it was somewhat controversial. People were split over its unregulated, unfettered freedom and anonymity that brought joy to some and fear to others. Stories started to emerge of web surfing going horribly wrong – everything from addiction to murder.

On television, Channel 4 ran a comment spot from Janet Street Porter – the media’s ‘voice of youth’ at the time – arguing the web was just a fad, for geeks or nerds, and it would never really catch on. That was the moment I became totally convinced it would. Yet no one, not even Tim Berners-Lee himself, could see where it would go, how it would become such a major part of everyone’s lives.

Niggles remained, though. Was the anonymity all good? How can you verify what you read? I and many others in the media were concerned that it wasn’t regulated in the same way as traditional media, not in practice subject to the same law or ethics. And that would be a problem. I wasn’t right about many things back then, as it turned out, so I rarely get to say I told you so. But three decades later: told you so!

Technology sometimes attracts unfair blame for wrongs like cyber crime, potential invasions of privacy, lack of human decency and compassion on social media platforms, or even ethics in genetics. But of course, it is how people use the technology, not the technology itself, that is in question. Indeed, at this year’s E&T                 Innovation Awards there will be new categories for our Critical Targets including Trust & Truth, and this will be looking at the innovative ways in which technology is solving problems.

One of the judges in the Trust & Truth category is Professor Kevin Warwick, who said: "It is problematic for everyone to trust in what you’re doing and seeing. Interacting with technology is a big, big issue now and criminals have moved in in a big way and are making an awful lot of money."

Beyond cyber crime, the more nuanced issues are not so easily defined. How do we defend freedom of speech while also maintaining a sense of decency and honesty within social media? The Online Safety Bill aims to address that in the UK, but has caused indignation among those who would like to see less, not more, online policing. These concerns are tackled in one of the leading articles in this issue.                             

Another looks at how privacy issues will come under increased pressure as 6G technology kicks in, while another asks who is regulating the artificial-intelligence content that is proliferating on the web. And who owns the intellectual property of an AI-developed product?

Technology of course can be used to combat crime as well as facilitate it. We have one article that looks at the tech helping to determine whether a piece of art is an original or not, and another on the gadgets used to prevent that most contemporary of crimes – pandemic dog thefts.  

As we light the candles on the World Wide Web’s 30th birthday cake, we look at the future of the industry perhaps most disrupted by the web: retail. As high streets struggle, online shopping unveils more amazing technology to keep customers shopping from home. What’s coming next?

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