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Worldwide Web wizard Tim Berners-Lee sticks wellington boot into Worldwide Web's giants: Time to break 'em up?

Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc, bashed by Sir Timothy OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS

Worldwide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has had enough of internet giants Google, Facebook and friends, and reckons the time has come to look at breaking them up.

Warning of the "danger of concentration", the grumpy 63-year-old Brit said it was often "natural" that one company comes to dominate a particular field, and that it was contingent on society when that happens to "come in and break things up."

He's not completely sold yet on the need to break up the tech giants because, he argues, it may still be possible that smaller, more flexible companies could out-innovate them – though, he thinks the authorities should start digging into the question of whether the tech goliaths hold too much sway.

"Before breaking them up, we should see whether they are not just disrupted by a small player beating them out of the market, but by the market shifting, by the interest going somewhere else," he told Reuters in an interview prior to giving a keynote at the Mozilla Festival in London, England, where he is expected to expound on his ideas.

While he didn't name the companies that needed breaking up, the reality is that he doesn't need to: we all know who they are, which is sort of the point. Google dominates internet searches, Facebook dominates social media, and Amazon dominates online shopping.

It's not just undue influence that Sir Tim is worried about however; he fears that unpleasant corporate cultures are impacting society through the design and business choices made by the tech giants.


He cites the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal where the personal data on 87 million Facebook users was grabbed and used for iffy electioneering efforts. Just this week, Facebook's promises to clamp down on political ads was shown to be a sham when reporters were able to take out ads on the platform spreading false information and saying they were paid for by… Cambridge Analytica.

It’s worse than that though: with a spotlight on its new system, others have discovered that there are basically no useful checks on political ads. Folks can simply type in whatever name they'd like to appear in the "Paid for" field - eg, "Ad paid for by Mickey Mouse" - and have their ads approved with the made-up name on the advertisement. One series of ads taken out by large American corporations said that they had been paid for by an organization that doesn't exist beyond a Facebook page.

Berners-Lee was also critical of the cesspool that is Twitter: "If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly. And you wonder: 'Well is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?'"

In summary, he said he was "disappointed with the current state of the web," and that from his perspective "we have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked."

It certainly feels that way given the spate of scandals and angry discourse on both sides of the Atlantic which tech giants only seem to be amplifying. But what do you reckon? Is Sir Tim right? Or has he just entered the grumpy old man phase of life? ®

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