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Have we reached a tipping point towards a better internet?

Tim Berners-Lee may feel he created a monster, but there are grounds for optimism

Worldwide web founder Tim Berners-Lee. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

This week, at the launch of the Web Summit in Lisbon, creator of the worldwide web, Tim Berners-Lee, cautioned that the internet was now at a “tipping point”.

On the network he created three decades ago, too much power is concentrated in the (often hidden) hands of a small number of opaque, global technology companies, he argued.

And instead of being the social and civil boon he envisioned, the net makes data breaches, surveillance and exploitation infinitely easier. Lies, distortions and hate speech circulates with ease. The web’s targeted ad-driven revenue models enable manipulation of individuals and society.

"If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would have said humanity is going to do a good job with this," he told CNBC in an interview. "If we connect all these people together, they are such wonderful people they will get along. I was wrong."


From a jaded 2018 viewpoint, Berners-Lee seems to have been hopelessly optimistic and trusting. Yet anyone who was around using the internet in the 1980s and then his newly created web as it blossomed into popular use in the 1990s, will recall similar optimism.

The joke back then was that everyone was gathering and storing data in the desperate hope that, one day, someone would figure out how to monetise it

Back then the internet seemed to be so full of positive potential. For a long time, the biggest headache for most web users was spam. Spam! How few of us imagined those irritating unsolicited ads for body-part enhancements or financial scams would be an invading force securing the ground for all sorts of targeted mistruths, exploitation, security risks, breaches and data extraction.

Even as digital data-gathering and stockpiling became an end goal, it took a long time for many of us to realise the privacy, security, and societal implications of data gathering, storage and analysis.

The joke back then was that everyone was gathering and storing data in the desperate hope that, one day, someone would figure out how to monetise it. Analysing all that data might enable better sales and customer service, went the spiel.

We weren’t really thinking about selling democracy, national security or our ability to have a private life.

But here we are now, parsed, analysed, manipulated and sold, after Snowden; after Cambridge Analytica/Facebook; after the Brexit campaign; after the US, EU and Irish elections; and after hack after hack. We are all more familiar with the net's divisive, dangerous problems.

Serious flaw

Berners-Lee is an impassioned voice for saving the net, but his proposed “Contract for the web”, a voluntary set of principles for defending a free and open internet, has the serious flaw of hoping that a majority of the world’s people, companies and governments will sign up and actually observe the commitments they’ve made.

Nonetheless, as one of the net’s most respected and moral voices and a driving force for positive change, Berners-Lee’s proposal is important for heightening awareness and galvanising action that can be channelled in many more binding and enforceable ways.

Those include the role national and local governments and courts have in scrutinising online malfeasance of all types, the fresh regulatory approaches governments and agencies can and should introduce to better manage companies, individuals and activities that can elude existing outdated laws and regulations, and voluntary public commitments by companies and governments.

The positive news here is that many of these steps are being taken right now, most emerging in the past year. Boycotts, campaigns and protests by citizens, consumers and employees have demonstrated that organisations can be pushed towards change if seen to violate social and ethical standards.

Company initiatives, such as Microsoft’s free Defending Democracy and AccountGuard programmes to help countries prevent bad actors from targeting elections, demonstrate ways in which the private sector can act for good.

Anti-trust laws

In a Web Summit keynote on Wednesday, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager cautioned internet businesses, warning that the the EU will use its legal powers – including anti-trust laws – to ensure that corporates act responsibly, do not manipulate or exploit citizens and cannot become overly dominant controllers of people's data.

And then, over in the US, the new, Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is likely to add serious momentum behind stronger privacy and data protection legislation and a reconsideration of the Trump administration's gutting of net neutrality. Before the US election this week, both Republicans and Democrats (and Democrats have the stronger privacy proposals) had been working on data protection Bills that will now need cross-party negotiation and support. Both sides of the house are anxious to pre-empt the prospect of extra-strong state privacy legislation coming from California, which could end up being the model nationwide (as often happens with Californian laws).

Taken together, these are all signs that perhaps, just perhaps, we have reached a tipping point on the internet – but towards rather than away from the more responsible web Berners-Lee is hoping for.