The world-wide web needs a complete rethink to counter the “nasty, mean ideas” that have come to characterise so much social media, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee told an audience in London this week.
Sir Tim, whose 1989 proposal to CERN effectively created the world-wide web as “an open internet to play with”, questioned the role of Twitter in particular as a conduit for negative thinking, alongside increases in spying and the rise of fake news during last year’s US presidential election campaign.
Speaking at the Innovate Finance global fintech summit, he asked: “How come nasty, mean ideas, seem to have traveled more prevalently than constructive ideas on Twitter sometimes? Is that the way it has been designed?”
“Look at Twitter,” he said. “Is this actually a net good for the planet?”.
Twitter has come under increasing criticism for doing nothing to control trolls and harassment, as well as carrying fake news.
Calling for a “complete change of strategy”, Sir Tim said the content and behaviour of people online was a far cry from the “utopian” days of the early web, when people sought to “do good stuff”.
“The assumption was if we gave humanity an open space to play with, good things would happen,” he said. Now, despite great examples of sharing like Wikipedia, “we actually have to not leave people to make whatever social networks they like.”
He did acknowledge the efforts of Facebook and Twitter also to regulate content on their platforms, but said “we need to rethink the way we build society on top of the web”.
Spying was also a major concern for Berners-Lee, as governments worldwide sought to access more and more individual data.
“We have tried to keep it open, we kept it royalty-free,” he said. “We have kept it open in the sense of no censorship. On a good day, in a good country, we keep it free of spying.”
He also questioned the rise of targeted political advertising that effectively allows politicians to tell people what they want to hear in order to win power. He asked: “Should we introduce a rule that, if you’re a political organisation, you may not target?”
Sir Tim’s comments echoed arguments he put forward last month in an open letter to mark the 28th birthday of the web, in his role as the director of the World Wide Web Foundation, set up to promote digital equality.
The letter set out his big fears for the future of the web, including loss of control of personal data, unregulated political advertising and the rise of fake news.
* Technology is a marvel, and the UK can lead the way with “ethical, fair, sustainable and responsible technology”, lastminute.com founder Baroness Martha Lane Fox wrote in the Guardian this week.