- On the day of the world wide web’s 29th birthday, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, published an open letter on the state of the web today.
- Berners-Lee is concerned that the web is too centralized, not regulated enough, and not inclusive enough to the world’s population.
- The letter concludes with Berners-Lee’s hopes for the future, in which the people regulate the internet for themselves.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is not pleased with how his invention has taken shape. The world wide web turns 29 years old today. To mark the occasion, Berners-Lee penned an open letter, published by The Guardian, in which he discusses his disappointment, fears, and hopes in regards to his creation.
In the letter, Berners-Lee discusses how a milestone is about to be reached: at some point this year, half of the world’s population will be online. While that sounds like a cause for celebration, Berners-Lee states that he’s concerned the web that the non-connected half of the world will eventually connect with will be a sorry state of affairs.
The three biggest issues Berners-Lee has with how the web has taken shape is the digital divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, the centralization of information, and the lack of regulation upon the largest web portals. With these major problems in place, Berners-Lee fears that the web could be “weaponized” through false information, corporate interests, and the stifling of free expression.
Berners-Lee fears that the web could be 'weaponized' through false information, corporate interests, and the stifling of free expression.
When it comes to the digital divide, Berners-Lee does not mince words; the people who are not connected to the internet are overwhelmingly poor, live in rural or low-income areas, are female, or a combination of all three. With these three categories of people not represented on the web, it creates a discourse in which their voices are not heard. If the web truly is for everyone, how can it be a fair conversation if so many voices are left out of the discussion?
We must support policies and business models that expand access to the world’s poorest through public access solutions, such as community networks and public WiFi initiatives. We must invest in securing reliable access for women and girls, and empowering them through digital skills training.
To the second point — the issue of the centralization of information — Berners-Lee states:
The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
While he never calls out the likes of Google or Facebook directly in regards to this opinion, it’s clear that those are the kinds of companies he’s referring to. If the world wide web truly belongs to us, the people, why is access to the web controlled by only a few giant corporations? What’s to stop those corporations from limiting our access to information that only benefits them and their ultra-rich shareholders? Or, even worse, what stops them from promoting or even creating false information and painting it as fact?
If the world wide web truly belongs to us, the people, why is access to the web controlled by only a few giant corporations?
For those reasons, Berners-Lee thinks more regulation is the key to the web being open and useful to everyone. “The responsibility – and sometimes burden – of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good,” he says. “A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.”
Berners-Lee does not use the words “net neutrality” in the letter, but he has gone on the record several times in the past that he supports net neutrality. But it appears he wants to take things even further, with not only government oversight of how internet services distribute information to the people, but also how internet companies should operate as a benefit to the people and not simply for profit.
Internet companies should operate as a benefit to the people and not simply for profit.
But regulation doesn’t just come from governments; it also comes from us, the users. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts, and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future,” he continues. “At the Web Foundation [a non-profit founded by Berners-Lee], we are ready to play our part in this mission and build the web we all want. Let’s work together to make it possible.”
You can read the open letter in full here.