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Tim Berners-Lee calls for a better internet as it celebrates its 28th birthday

Tim Maytom
Tim Berners-Lee working at CERN, where he first proposed what would become the internet

The internet turned 28 this weekend, making it roughly the same age as Theo Walcott,Blake Griffin and late Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin. On 12 March, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted his original proposal for the worldwide web, an open platform that would “allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries”.

Now, as the web continues to evolve to a generation accessing it not via large off-grey boxes with CRT monitors but through handheld devices with computing power that would have been unheard of 30 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee has written an open letter, expressing his concerns about the future of the free and open net.

Berners-Lee says in the letter that it has been a “recurring battle” to keep the web free from being dominated by powerful interests, whether those are governmental or corporate, and cites three worrying new trends that must be tackled “in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity”.

Two of Berners-Lee’s trends are extremely topical, and seem to point to issues spotlighted by last year’s US election – the ease with which misinformation is spread on the web, and the lack of transparency and understanding surrounding online political advertising.

“Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry,” says Berners-Lee. “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 suggests that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being using in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls.”

While the digital marketing industry has certainly had an impact on these two points (in particular platforms like Facebook and Twitter), it is Berners-Lee’s third point that has the widest implication. He writes that consumers have “lost control of our personal data”, saying that widespread data collection not only robs users of their right to control when and how their personal information is shared, but that it also enables a growing surveillance culture that stifles free speech.

“The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data,” says Berners-Lee. “Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.”

Concerns in this area have led to things like cookie warnings for websites, and calls for clearer language in terms and conditions, but the average consumer still has very little sense of just who has access to their personal data and what is being done with it.

In the letter, Berners-Lee announces that The Web Foundation, the net neutrality and internet access advocacy group he founded, will be working on these issues as part of a new five year strategy that aims to “drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all”.

“These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple,” says Berners- Lee. “But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal ‘data pods’ if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments.

“We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is ‘true’ or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the ‘internet blind spot’ in the regulation of political campaigning.”

The open letter ends with a celebration of what the internet has achieved, and how it represents a truly global enterprise made up of “all the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more” of millions around the world. When it comes to the marketing industry, we could always do with a reminder that without consumers, there would be no internet. No platforms to host our messages, no content to sponsor, no audience to reach. Perhaps when we talk about ‘customer-centred approaches’ to advertising in this new age, we should remember that what customers most want is a free, open internet where their personal data is treated with respect and transparency.