The internet is not perfect, but it’s not broken either

The founding father of the web believes there is a definite threat to the net as we know it.

Tim Berners Lee is a man you listen to when he talks about the internet. He is, after all, the father of the world wide web. The man who 28 years ago this month submitted a proposal for an information management system to his boss, Mike Sendal at the CERN.  

Given the the invention would have on society over the next three decades, Sendal’s response was somewhat underwhelming: “Vague, but exciting,” he wrote.

A year later Berners-Lee wrote the code for the first web browser and the rest, as they say, is history. Today the internet is a multi-faceted behemoth which dominates the lives of billions of people connecting disparate lives and providing instant access to information at the flick of a switch.

But Berners-Lee is worried that his creation is being subverted, that his vision for “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries” is not what we have today.

In an article written for the Guardian last week the founder of the world wide web highlighted three areas he is particularly concerned about and which he believes are threatening the freedom and openness of the net.

Specifically, they are:

  1. Losing control of our personal data
  2. How easy it is to spread misinformation on the web
  3. Political advertising threatening democracy

It is certainly true to say that the issues highlighted here do not square with the vision Berners-Lee laid out all those years ago. But the reality is, that the internet we have today may have been built on the ideas submitted by Berners-Lee but it has been overtaken by commercial concerns and giants like Facebook and Google who control ast swathes of what we see and do online.

Yes these companies take and use huge amounts of our personal data, but for the most part, we consent to give them out data. We are not losing control of it, we simply gave it away so that we could have better search results and connect with people we maybe met once in a bar on Ko Samui.

For anyone born after Berners’Lee proposal was submitted, there is a tacit understanding of the trade off between privacy and getting something for free. Yes, it’s true that the current generation share a lot more about themselves online than previous generations do, but that is their choice — and trying to get them to stop is a futile exercise.

The spreading of misinformation on the web is clearly a problem, but we are only hearing about it now because of its supposed impact on the US election last year. There has always been misinformation online, a lot of malicious and a real threat to people’s lives — but it is not a threat to the internet. Just like all issues of this type, a fix will be found — Facebook and Google are too big not to find a solution.

Finally, when it comes to political advertising Berners-Lee asks: “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”

Well, it is isn’t, then why have politicians the world over been allowed to say something slightly different to every house they visit during election campaigns? Telling people what they want to hear is a policy as old as democracy itself.