Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has attacked the algorithms that have helped spread fake news. In an open letter written to mark 28 years since the web was created, Berners-Lee also voiced concerns about the widespread misuse of personal data and the ethics of political advertising.
Fake news “wildfire”
Berners-Lee, Founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, said misinformation propagates with ease because most internet users receive their news from only a few social media sites and search engines, which profit from people clicking links. Because of the monetary incentive, these sites’ algorithms tend to prioritise content based on what people are likely to engage with (i.e. clickbait) over sources traditionally considered more accurate. This means fake news can “spread like wildfire”.
Clickbait > truth
Four months after a hugely divisive US election result, which saw the winner lose the popular vote, Berners-Lee has criticised the practice of online political advertising. Campaigns tend to rely on vast quantities of personal data to target advertisements towards viewers. During the election, up to 50,000 variants of adverts were displayed on Facebook on a daily basis, he says. “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”
Even outside the realms of politics, the collection of personal data is going too far, explains Berners-Lee. With a growing number of websites demanding users give up their data in exchange for free content, people are losing control over their information. In this “all or nothing” agreement, web users often agree to lengthy terms and conditions that they rarely bother to peruse, and have no way of telling companies which information they would rather not share.
Big brother online
It’s not just companies but also governments that are tracking online behaviour. This is particularly an issue with repressive regimes targeting critical bloggers. Berners-Lee writes, “It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics.” The Oxford-educated physicist recommends internet users adopt data pods, which store personal data away from applications and grant access only on a temporary basis. For companies reliant on advertising clicks, he suggests subscriptions and micropayments as alternative means of income.
He adds that more “algorithmic transparency” is required to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are made.
To celebrate the internet’s 28th year, why not have a read of the first website?