Nearly 30 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, proposed a global system of technology that would change history: the world wide web.
Sunday marked the 28th anniversary of that proposal, the so-called “birthday” of the internet. But rather than celebrate, Berners-Lee instead decided to speak out on the three trends that have him “increasingly worried” about the fate of the internet in a column for The Guardian.
As Berners-Lee points out, personal data has become currency on the internet, with major tech companies like Google and Facebook tracking the activities of people in order to sell targeted advertisements.
Specifically, Berners-Lee criticized the terms and conditions agreements many websites use in exchange for allowing users to access the sites. These agreements often allow the sites to then track and sell personal data, but it is commonly accepted that most users never read those agreements and simply consent as quickly as possible.
According to AdWeek, less than 18 percent of internet users claim to always read the terms and conditions agreement, but even that self-reported number may be too high. One social experiment found that 98 percent of people unquestioningly signed a terms and condition agreement that included a stipulation that the users would give up their first-born children, per NPR.
Berners-Lee also raised concern about governments’ abilities to track and monitor online activity and the impact that might have on free speech and the opportunities the web provides for exploration of “important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”
According to Freedom House, two thirds of the world’s internet users live in countries where criticism of the government can be censored, while just 24 percent live in countries where internet usage has been classified as “free.” And that trend is only becoming worse, as Freedom House found that internet freedom has declined across the world over the past six years.
While Berners-Lee mostly avoided using the term that has become ubiquitous since the U.S. presidential campaign, he criticized how easy it has become for “misinformation” to spread across the web. Specifically, he pointed to the fact that most news is spread through just a few search engines and websites, which are designed to indulge “our biases.”
Indeed, social media has become one of the primary sources of news for American adults, according to the Pew Research Center, and a majority of Americans get their news from just one website. In particular, 44 percent of Americans get news on Facebook, which has been criticized by some for its perceived influence on the presidential election.
Related to fake news, the rise of personalized political advertisements has allowed “a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,” Berners-Lee asserted. Citing another Guardian article, Berners-Lee also said that campaigns and marketing companies hired by campaigns created as many as 50,000 personalized ads targeted towards users based on their personal data every day on Facebook during the course of the 2016 election.
As Forbes reports, the practice of aggressively customizing advertising to fit small groups of voters, called “microtargeting,” has only recently become a political tool in the past few election cycles after being mostly leveraged by retailers. Regulation of this use of personal data is limited, per CNN.
In response to all these issues, Berners-Lee called on Facebook and Google, among other sites, to combat fake news and allow users to retain some rights over their personal data. He also advocated for less government surveillance, while at the same time calling for new laws to control how political campaigns can use personal data.