Tim Berners-Lee calls for web salvation

"If we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want," World Wide Web inventor says

Photo: EPA WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee speaking during an event marking 30 years of World Wide Web at the CERN

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has published an open letter to mark the 30th anniversary of the day - March 12, 1989. The day when he submitted his original proposal for an information management system that went on to underpin the birth of online services.

The proposal, dubbed “vague but exciting” by his boss at the time, married hypertext with Internet TCP and domain name system ideas. Berners-Lee also had to design and build a web browser and put together the first web server. The first website was put up a couple of years later, running on a NeXT computer at CERN.

Yet, thirty years on from the free and open online information playground Berners-Lee had envisaged, today’s web is not quite the academic, egalitarian paradise he dreamed of. And he wants to change that. So in his anniversary letter he now calls on people not to give up their fight for a better world wide web.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” he writes.

To show the path for the web to become once again a global force of good as it once was, Berners-Lee identifies thus three major "sources of dysfunction" affecting the web that must be taken in account by every user: deliberate malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment; system design that creates perverse incentives with user value being sacrificed; and unintended negative consequences of benevolent design.

The first, he says, resulted from issues like state-sponsored hacking and criminal behavior; the second from entities like ad-based revenue models "that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation"; and the last produced problems such as "the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse."

“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline,” Berners-Lee continues, setting out an action plan for tackling disinformation and web misuse. “The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.”

Yet, he warns against solving online problems with “simplistic narratives.”

"You can't just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit....To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community," he insists, while also urging governments, companies and citizens to "ensure the other half (of the world) are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity."

In that regard, Berners-Lee's letter points again to his Web Foundation's initiative from last year. Billed as a “Contract for the Web, the initiative is aimed at creating a set of core, universal principles that must be taken by governments, the private sector and citizens to work together on tackling problems of online abuse and misuse by collaborating on contributions that drive “equality, opportunity and creativity.” The text is expected to be published in full in May 2019.

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