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Tim Berners-Lee says regulation of the web may be needed

Social networks have too much power, says web daddy, and their profit motive means they won't act for the good of all

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee has used the 29th anniversary of the publication of his proposal for an "information management" system that became the world-wide web to warn his creation is in peril.

"The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today," Berners-Lee wrote in his regular birthday letter. "What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared."

"These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry's top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last."

"What's more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we've seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data."

Berners-Lee goes on to say that the while the dominant platforms have tried to act, "The responsibility - and sometimes burden - of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions."

He therefore suggests corrective action on behalf of the next few billion web users, because "This year marks a milestone in the web's history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world's population will be online."

Berners-Lee didn't offer a blueprint for the kind of regulation he suggests may be needed, instead writing that "as the late internet activist, John Perry Barlow, once said: 'A good way to invent the future is to predict it'. It may sound utopian, it may sound impossible to achieve after the setbacks of the last two years, but I want us to imagine that future and build it."

He added: "Let's assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web's future. At the Web Foundation, we are ready to play our part in this mission and build the web we all want. Let's work together to make it possible."

Over to you, readers. You're among the brightest minds anywhere, so hit the comments and give Sir Tim some ideas! ®

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