Let’s change the internet
We refer to the inventor of something as the “father” of it when we know for a fact that the person is behind the invention. Being a father of a “thing” is getting exceedingly harder as the “things” that are being invented are getting even more complicated. For example, the most important invention of the last century, the internet, has many fathers and mothers. Pioneers like Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, Elizabeth Feinler, Leonard Klienrock and Tim Berners-Lee have done awesome things and all their efforts brought us the wonder of the century. Among these giants Tim Berners-Lee deserves a special place, as he proposed and built the World Wide Web.
He recently wrote an article for the World Economic Forum as the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and it made me think really hard on what kind of a future we are creating for ourselves.
He says that there are three dark trends that could destroy the web as we know it. His number one is that we’ve lost control of our personal data. The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realize if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more is that we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties.
The second trend that he underlines is that it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or “fake news,” which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire.
The last point he makes is that political advertising online needs transparency and understanding. Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 U.S. election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the U.S. and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things with different groups.
As he is the “father” it is safe to say that he knows his child very well. I gave up most of this column to his opinions and words because they are exactly what I have been writing about for a couple of years whenever there is a topic about the internet. He articulated them perfectly. He says the solution to these problems is in our hands, and if we collaborate on a global scale then we can build the internet that we want. If you also think like us and want to contribute, then go to webfoundation.org and find out how you can contribute.