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Platform power is crushing the web, warns Berners-Lee


On the 29th birthday of the world wide web, its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has sounded a fresh warning about threats to the web as a force for good, adding his voice to growing  concerns about big techs impact on competition and society. The webs creator argues that the powerful weight of a few dominant tech platforms is having a deleterious impact by concentrating power in the hands of gatekeepers that gain control over which ideas and opinions are seen and shared. His suggested fix is socially minded regulation, so hes also lending his clout to  calls for big tech to be ruled. These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors, Berners-Lee writes in an open letter published today on the Web Foundations website. 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. The concentration of power in the hands of a few mega platforms is also the source of the current fake news crisis, in Berners-Lees view, because he says platform power has made it possible for people to weaponise the web at scale — echoing comments made by the UK prime minister last year when she called out Russia for planting fakes online to try to disrupt elections. 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, he writes, pointing out that the current response of lawmakers has been to look to the platforms themselves for answers — which he argues is neither fair nor likely to be effective. In the EU, for example, the threat of future regulation is being used to encourage social media companies to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct aimed at speeding up takedowns of various types of illegal content, including terrorist propaganda. Though the Commission is also seeking to drive action against a much broader set of online content issues — such as hate speech, commercial scams and even copyrighted material. Critics argue its approach risks chilling free expression via AI-powered censorship. Some EU member states have gone further too. Germany now has a law with big fines for social media platforms that fail to comply with hate speech takedown requirements, for example, while in the UK ministers are toying with new rules, such as placing limits on screen time for children and teens. Both the Commission and some EU member states have been pushing for increased automation of content moderation online. In the UK last month, ministers unveiled an extremism blocking tool which the government had paid a local AI company to develop, with the Home Secretary warning she had not ruled out forcing companies to use it. Meanwhile, in the US, Facebook has faced huge pressure in recent years as awareness has grown of how extensively its platform is used to spread false information, including during the 2016 presidential election. The company has announced a series of measures aimed at combating the spread of fake news generally, and reducing the risk of election disinformation specifically — as well as a major recent change to its news feed algorithm ostensibly to encourage users towards having more positive interactions on its platform. But Berners-Lee argues that letting commercial entities pull levers to try to fix such a wide-ranging problem is a bad idea — arguing that any fixes companies come up with will inexorably be restrained by their profit-maximizing context and also that they amount to another unilateral impact on users. A better solution, in his view, is not to let tech platform giants self-regulate but to create a framework for ruling them that factors in social objectives. A year ago Berners-Lee also warned about the same core threats to the web. Though he was less coherent in his thinking then that regulation could be the solution — instead flagging up a variety of initiatives aimed at trying to combat threats such as the systematic background harvesting of personal data. So he seems to be shifting towards backing the idea of an overarching framework to control the tech thats being used to control us. Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them — with each change they make affecting millions of people, he writes now. 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. Berners-Lees letter also emphasizes the need for diversity of thought in shaping any web regulations to ensure rules dont get skewed towards a certain interest or group. And he makes a strong call for investments to help close the global digital divide. The future of the web isnt just about those of us who are online today, but also those yet to connect, he warns. 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. Another specific call he makes is for fresh thinking about Internet business models, arguing that online advertising should not be accepted as the only possible route for sustaining web platforms. We need to be a little more creative, he argues. 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, he adds. 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. At the time of writing Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter had not responded to a request for comment.

Tim Berners-Lee: We need a ‘legal or regulatory framework’ to save the Web from dominant tech platforms


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