Marking 30 years of the web, Tim Berners-Lee calls for a joint fight against disinformation

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has published an open letter to mark the 30th anniversary of the day — March 12, 1989 — when he submitted his original proposal for an information management system that went on to underpin the birth of online services.

The proposal, dubbed “vague but exciting” by his boss at the time, married hypertext with Internet TCP and domain name system ideas. Berners-Lee also had to design and build a web browser and put together the first web server. The first website was put up a couple of years later, running on a NeXT computer at CERN, where Berners-Lee had worked.

The rest, as they say, is internet history.

Thirty years on from the free and open online information playground Berners-Lee had envisaged, it’s fair to say today’s web isn’t quite the academic, egalitarian paradise he dreamed of.

In recent years, Berners-Lee has made a series of public interventions, warning especially about corporate capture of the online sphere. He’s also working on new decentralization technologies to try to break the grip of dominant digital walled gardens.

The academic turned entrepreneur certainly cannot be accused of shying away from the societal challenges his invention now poses.

But his anniversary letter urges people not to give up on the web. “If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” he suggests.

The letter, which can be read in full here on the Web Foundation’s site, boils the problem of web misuse into three distinct categories:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimize this behaviour, just as we have always done offline,” Berners-Lee continues, setting out an action plan for tackling disinformation and web misuse. “The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.”

He also warns against reacting to online problems with “simplistic narratives.”

“You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community,” he suggests.

Though that argument elides the problem of digital information being maliciously and deliberately weaponized in order to sew social division — which works against the kind of collaboration and compromise he’s saying is essential to successfully manage and maintain a healthy online space and thus society.

Last year Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation launched a set of core principles — billed as a “Contract for the Web” — seeking to loop in governments, the private sector and citizens to work together on tackling problems of online abuse and misuse by collaborating on contributions that drive “equality, opportunity and creativity.”

The letter points again to this initiative, with Berners-Lee writing: “Governments, companies and citizens are all contributing, and we aim to have a result later this year.”

Albeit, it’s difficult to read his plan for action without thinking of the old adage that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.

“The Contract for the Web must not be a list of quick fixes but a process that signals a shift in how we understand our relationship with our online community,” Berners-Lee suggests. “It must be clear enough to act as a guiding star for the way forward but flexible enough to adapt to the rapid pace of change in technology. It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.

“The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”

While you wouldn’t expect the “father” of the World Wide Web to give up on his now adult-aged child, however wayward in habits it’s become, the letter is still striking on account of the breadth of societal problems being linked to the Web — from competitively distorted markets; to human rights infringements and threats to democracy, privacy, diversity and security; to the undermining of science fact and public safety; and even a conduit for further increasing inequality via digital divides.

Equally, nothing on that list of negatives is surprising anymore.

Though that’s to concentrate the negatives, of course.

Berners-Lee also writes positively that the web has become “a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more.”

And in another upbeat moment he had praise for tech workers who have taken individual ethical stances against tech-misusing employers — “to demand better business practices.”

“We need to encourage that spirit,” he writes, calling for more ethical activism from tech workers.