Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns of the Web's 'dysfunctions'

March 12, 2019 | 10:58

Tags: #contract-for-the-web #internet #sir-tim-berners-lee #solid #web #world-wide-web

Companies: #world-wide-web-foundation

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the creator of the first hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) client and server software, has looked back on the World Wide Web's 30-year history - and hasn't liked all he has seen.

The Web, most historians agree, was effectively born when European Organisation for Nuclear Research's (CERN's) Tim Berners-Lee - at the time not a Sir - came up with a proposal for linking together the disparate concepts of hypertext and the burgeoning Internet to form an information management system. Using the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), Domain Name System (DNS), and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Berners-Lee effectively created what we now know as the World Wide Web - by far and away the single most popular use of the Internet in history.

'Today, 30 years on from my original proposal for an information management system, half the world is online. It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go,' Berners-Lee writes in a retrospective piece for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) he founded and directs. 'The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.

'And while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit. Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.'

Berners-Lee's concerns aren't new: Back in October last year he launched the Solid privacy project, which aimed to provide a platform that would give users control of their personal information, and in November launched a 'Contract for the Web' which built on a set of core principles.

Berners-Lee's latest piece identifies what he describes as 'three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web: Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment; system design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation; unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.'

His solution, of course, is broader adoption of the Contract for the Web. 'The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time. Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity. The Contract for the Web must not be a list of quick fixes but a process that signals a shift in how we understand our relationship with our online community. It must be clear enough to act as a guiding star for the way forward but flexible enough to adapt to the rapid pace of change in technology. It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.

'The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it,' Berners-Lee concludes. 'It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.'

The full piece is available on the World Wide Web Foundation website.

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