Three major problems with the modern internet keeping Tim Berners-Lee up at night

 
Lynsey Barber
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Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned about risks such as data privacy and surveillance (Source: Getty)

Personal data, misinformation (or as it's now been dubbed, fake news) and online political advertising: these are the three major problems of the modern internet that keep the inventor of the World Wide Web up at night.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has shared his thoughts on the 28th anniversary of the day he submitted his proposal for the web.

The three new trends are something he's become increasingly worried about in the last 12 months, and which he believes "we must tackle in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity".

1. Personal data

Berners-Lee warned that we have lost control of our personal data online and that companies and governments are increasingly using it to watch our every move online. He pointed toward the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill as an example of extreme laws that "trample on our rights to privacy".

"Even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far," he said.

It comes just days after a huge leak of information claiming to detail the methods and tools used by the CIA to spy on people.

2. Fake news

Misinformation can spread like wildfire, Berners-Lee warns, putting it down to the dominance of just a few social media 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."

3. Political advertising

Also connected to the idea of fake news and personal data, Berners-Lee says the sophisticated industry that has sprung up around these two things is being used unethically.

"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 US 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 US 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."

He added: "Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?"

It comes after concerns have been raised around the US election and in the UK MPs have launched an inquiry into the issue and its threat to democracy. Meanwhile the UK data regulator is investigating the use of data in Brexit campaigning.

But. the computer programmer is also taking action to help fix these things as head of the Web Foundation, and is calling on others to help. "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," he said.

He also made several suggestions as to how action can be taken:

  1. Work with companies on putting greater data control in the hands of people, including new technology, and alternative revenue models such as subscriptions and micropayments.
  2. Fight against surveillance laws.
  3. Encourage gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to to continue fighting misinformation, but avoid the formation of a single body deciding on what is "true".
  4. Berners-Lee wants more transparent algorithms.
  5. Close the "internet blind spot" in regulating political campaigning.

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