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Why the web needs patching

Regulators want to curb the web giants, while World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee believes problems with the web's misuse can be fixed

An open letter by the web’s inventor has been published in the same week that the UK government is looking at curbing the excesses of the web giants.

To coincide with the 30th anniversary of his paper describing the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee has penned an open letter in which he calls for changes to prevent the web from being exploited maliciously.

Entirely new business models exist today thanks to the connectivity and global audience the web can deliver. Some of these are malevolent, while others have led to dominant platforms that capture vast amounts of personal information. The dominance of these web giants is a growing area of concern for regulators, discussed in two new reports for the UK government.

Berners-Lee’s letter outlines three flaws in the web’s design that need addressing through legislation and new approaches to web business models.

The first area of concern is deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour and online harassment, which Berners-Lee believes can be limited through appropriate government legislation.

The second problem area for Berners-Lee is ad-based revenue models, which he said commercially rewards click-bait and the viral spread of misinformation. “This second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives,” Berners-Lee wrote.

The third weakness of the web arises from what Berners-Lee describes as a “unintended consequences of a benevolent design”. These include the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse. Berners-Lee believes this final area requires research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those that already exist.”

Government looks at web giants

His letter preceded a report on competition in the web market, prepared by a panel of experts for chancellor Philip Hammond and secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy Greg Clark.

The report, Unlocking digital competition, warned that the network effects and returns to scale of data appear to be even more entrenched and the market seems to have stabilised quickly compared to the much larger degree of churn in the early days of the World Wide Web.

Given that the next technological revolution is likely to be based on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the report warned that the companies most able to take advantage of such advancements are the largest technology firms, which have access to vast amount of personal data.

While new entry may still be possible in some markets, experts warned these are often snapped up by the largest companies – with little or no scrutiny, making it hard for alternatives to the tech giants to thrive.

Read more about the web’s 30th anniversary

  • While the internet existed way before the World Wide Web, the web changed everything. Its success has as much to do with the simplicity of using an HTTP web browser, as the fact that it was open.
  • In 1989, who would have thought the World Wide Web would touch every aspect of people’s lives – not only in a good way but also in ways that seem to undermine society.
  • As the World Wide Web turns 30, perhaps now is the time to sit back and evaluate how best to curb some of its excesses.

Similarly, the House of Lords, Select Committee on Communications’ Regulating in a digital world report, published on March 9, warned: “The digital world has become dominated by a small number of very large companies. These companies enjoy a substantial advantage, operating with an unprecedented knowledge of users and other businesses. Without intervention the largest tech companies are likely to gain more control.”

Data regulations

As Computer Weekly reported in its annual report, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) said it has 15 statutory inquiries open in relation to multinational technology companies compliance with GDPR.

Given concerns over how web firms collect personal data for AI and advanced analytics, the annual report stated that the DPC was examining the way LinkedIn processes personal data for behavioural analysis and targeted advertising on its platform.

A new web

As Berners-Lee wrote in his open letter, the web was designed to be benevolent. Its original premise was to enable researchers at Cern to share information, but when it was opened up, web servers enabled anyone to publish information, empowering freedom of speech. However, cyber criminals and state-sponsored hackers have been able to exploit this openness to target web users.

Beyond curbing hacking and cyber espionage, the World Wide Web Foundation is calling for a contract for the web, to look at how to tackle the issues Berners-Lee has documented in his open letter.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter did not exist in 1989, but now they are among the richest and fastest growing businesses in history. Their global dominance is something regulators are only now starting to recognise.

For Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation, everyone should get involved in helping to influence how the web evolves in a way that balances the privacy of individuals with business models that are not reliant on clickbait.

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