World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee believes we need to regulate technology companies to help preserve the Web as we know it. The British computer scientist issued an open letter today, 29 years to the day after he first proposed his idea for the online information management system that would later become known as the Web. In the letter, he outlined what he thinks we need to do to save the Web from the concentration of power of a few dominant platforms that has made it possible to weaponize the Web at scale. The likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter have faced increasing scrutiny over the roles they play in disseminating fake news — while also serving as easy vehicles for third parties, including foreign governments, to manipulate public opinion. The Web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today, Berners-Lee noted. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared. Berners-Lee also said that these dominant platforms create barriers to competition by acquiring emerging startups and new innovations and hiring the top technology talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them, and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last, he warned. Ultimately, the issue is that private, profit-seeking companies have been charged with fixing these problems when their ultimate goal has more to do with appeasing shareholders than ensuring the greater good of society. In fact, technology companies may not be prepared to voluntarily fix the problems they create, which is why some level of regulation may be required, according to Berners-Lee. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions, he said. Numerous internet pioneers and evangelists have spoken out against the direction the Web has taken in recent years, and Berners-Lee set up the Web Foundation in 2008 to fight for the open Web as a public good and human right. In December, one of the internets founders, Vint Cerf, teamed up with Berners-Lee and 19 other technologists to pen a letter asking the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to save net neutrality, though this effort was unsuccessful. You can read Sir Tim Berners-Lees letter in full below. The Web is under threat. Join us and fight for it. Today, the World Wide Web turns 29. This year marks a milestone in the Webs history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the worlds population will be online. When I share this exciting news with people, I tend to get one of two concerned reactions: How do we get the other half of the world connected? That vision is only possible if we get everyone online, and make sure the Web works for people. I founded the Web Foundation to fight for the Webs future. Heres where we must focus our efforts: Close the digital divideThe divide between people who have internet access and those who do not is deepening existing inequalities — inequalities that pose a serious global threat. Unsurprisingly, youre more likely to be offline if you are female, poor, live in a rural area or a low-income country, or some combination of the above. To be offline today is to be excluded from opportunities to learn and earn, to access valuable services, and to participate in democratic debate. If we do not invest seriously in closing this gap, the last billion will not be connected until 2042. Thats an entire generation left behind. In 2016, the UN declared internet access a human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food. But until we make internet access affordable for all, billions will continue to be denied this basic right. The target has been set — the UN recently adopted the Alliance for Affordable Internets threshold for threshold for affordability: 1 GB of mobile data for less than 2% of average monthly income. The reality, however, is that were still a long way off from reaching this target — in some countries, the cost of 1GB of mobile broadband remains over 20% of average monthly income. What will it take to actually achieve this goal? We must support policies and business models that expand access to the worlds poorest through public access solutions, such as community networks and public WiFi initiatives. We must invest in securing reliable access for women and girls, and empowering them through digital skills training. Make the Web work for peopleThe Web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared. These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industrys top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last. Whats more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the Web at scale. In recent years, weve 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. Weve looked to the platforms themselves for answers. Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them — with each change they make affecting millions of people. The responsibility — and sometimes burden — of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions. Bring more voices to the debate on the Webs futureThe future of the Web isnt just about those of us who are online today, but also those yet to connect. Todays powerful digital economy calls for strong standards that balance the interests of both companies and online citizens. This means thinking about how we align the incentives of the tech sector with those of users and society at large, and consulting a diverse cross-section of society in the process. Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that its too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative. While the problems facing the Web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people — and can be fixed by people. Create a new set of incentives and changes in the code will follow. We can design a Web that creates a constructive and supportive environment. Today, I want 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. As the late internet activist, John Perry Barlow, once said: a good way to invent the future is to predict it. 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. Lets assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the Webs future. At the Web Foundation, we are ready to play our part in this mission and build the Web we all want. Lets work together to make it possible. Sir Tim Berners-Lee
The centralization of the web has ruined what it was, Tim Berners-Lee wrote in an open letter. Today is the World Wide Web's 29th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion, its creator has told us how bad it's become. In an open letter appearing in The Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee painted a bleak picture of the current internet -- one dominated by a handful of colossal platforms that have constricted innovation and obliterated the rich, lopsided archipelago of blogs and small sites that came before. It's not too late to change, Lee wrote, but to do so, we need a dream team of business, tech, government, civil workers, academics and artists to cooperate in building "the web we all want. " Lee reserves his biggest criticisms for the huge platforms -- by implication, Facebook and Google, among others -- that have come to dominate their spheres and effectively become gatekeepers. They "control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared," Lee wrote, pointing out that they're able to impede competition by creating barriers. " They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry's top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last." Centralizing the web like this has lead to serious problems, like when an Amazon Web Services outage took down a chunk of internet services over a week ago -- ironically, nearly a year to the day after another similar web-crippling incident on AWS. But bottlenecking the internet through a handful of platforms has also enabled something more sinister: The weaponization of the internet. From trending conspiracy theories all the way up to influencing American politics using hundreds of fake social media accounts, outside actors have been able to maximize their manipulation efforts thanks to a far more centralized internet than we used to have, in Lee's opinion. These companies are ill-equipped to work for social benefit given their focus on profit -- and perhaps could use some regulation. " The responsibility – and sometimes burden – of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions," wrote Lee. You know who could fix the future of the internet? Us, of course -- a group of individuals from a broad cross-section of society who can outthink the hegemony of colossal internet corporations who are mostly fine with things as they are. Incentives could be the key to motivating new solutions, Lee concluded. But there's another problem that business can't really solve: Closing the digital gap by getting the unconnected onto the internet. These are more likely to be female, poor, geographically remote and/or living outside of the first world. Bringing them into the fold will diversify voices on the internet and be, well, a moral thing to do now that the UN has decided internet access is a basic human right. But it'll take more than inventive business models to get them online and up to speed: We'll have to support policies that bring the internet to them over community networks and/or public access.