Tim Berners-Lee says privacy needs fixing – and calls for 'algorithmic transparency'

Five-year plan proposes to explain why you're seeing that ad and the fake news it leads to


Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has penned a 28th-birthday letter for his creation in which he identifies three trends he thinks are harming the web, and explains how the Web Foundation that he heads will seek to implement his ideas.

Berners-Lee looks upon his works and is mostly satisfied with how they have has met his original goals of “the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”

But there's a but, as follows:“But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.”

The first is control of personal data. Berners-Lee thinks we don't have it any more and that's a bad thing because “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.”

“What’s more,” he says, “we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.”

He also worries that government surveillance is “increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy”. Repressive regimes use that surveillance to harass opponents, but even benevolent governments have “a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”

The second issue he thinks needs attention is fake news, and social networks role in spreading it.

“These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting,” Berners-Lee writes, suggesting that social networks have no incentive to stop the spread of clickbait rumours that may entertain but also damage polities.

Analytics exacerbates the problem, as “through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

His third worry is targeted political advertising being used to deliberately misinform. Berners-Lee cites a report of of a political iterated 50,000 times daily, and others “... being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls.”

The Web Foundation, which Berners-Lee heads, has cooked up a five-year plan to address these issues. For now he thinks the following actions are necessary:

“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.

He's also keen on Solid, an effort to decouple data from web applications (and by extension social networks) so that users can decide where their data resides and how it can be accessed. ®


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