In March1989, when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for what would become the worldwide web, his vision was suffused with optimism. To mark the 28th anniversary of his creation, he recalled that idea of “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries”. Much of that vision has come to pass but, in recent years, the utopian dream has become increasingly tarnished.
Now Berners-Lee has joined the clamour for more robust protections for online users against exploitation of personal data, unethical use of targeted advertising for political or commercial ends, and deliberate disinformation.
“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,” he said, announcing a five-year strategy for the Web Foundation, founded by him in 2009 to improve online access and the online experience.
Rather than focusing on one single issue, Berners-Lee correctly identifies a continuum of interlinked problems. The deliberately opaque commercial strategies of big tech companies, and the vast amounts of personal information they accumulate on us all, have provided the environment for a global explosion of surveillance, manipulation, propaganda and fake news.
Among the solutions he proposes are returning data control to individuals, replacing dubious online advertising models with new forms of subscriptions and micropayments, and encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to accelerate efforts to combat the problem.
Although he is wary of centralised or regulatory intervention, he suggests a set of common principles may be required, but it is not clear how these might be enforced. He identifies an urgent need to close what he describes as an “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.
It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking intervention in a debate that will only intensify as civic society struggles to protect citizens and define appropriate boundaries in the online world.