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My fears for the world wide web... by the scientist who invented it

Tim Berners-Lee urges action to address abuse

By Katie Wright

When, three decades ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, he envisioned "an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere, to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries".

In an open letter to mark his brainchild's 28th birthday, the World Wide Web Foundation founder admits that while, in many ways, the net has lived up to this vision, he's become "increasingly worried" about three new trends which he believes "we must tackle in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity."

First up, he writes, is the issue of websites offering "free content in exchange for personal data."

Even when we click "yes" to consent to cookies, or sign up to a new service, we're often unaware of the "all-or-nothing" nature of the T&Cs, with the consequences even greater in countries where surveillance technology is used to silence activists or political opponents.

Next, the 61-year-old says the dominance of a handful of social media sites and search engines means "misinformation, or fake news, can spread like wildfire."

"Through the use of data science and armies of bots", he warns, "those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain."

Also focusing on politics, Berners-Lee's final gripe is that campaigns are mining the aforementioned troves of personal data and using sophisticated algorithms to create targeted adverts, some of which he believes are being used in unethical ways, like directing voters to fake news stories.

This isn't just a giant moan-fest by Berners-Lee, however. Offering a variety of potential solutions, the London-born inventor says that some "paths to progress" are clear and that his foundation is working on many of the issues as part of its five-year strategy.

Collaboration between companies is imperative in order to take back control of our personal data, he believes, and we must encourage the likes of Google and Facebook to combat the fake news epidemic.

Should you be doing something to help?

"I urge you to support our work however you can", Berners-Lee says, "by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies and governments or by making a donation."

So, yes, to an extent his missive is a fundraising endeavour, but it's also a meaningful call to arms: "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."

Belfast Telegraph