The Three Challenges That Threat The Modern Web

Tim Berners-Lee
Inventor of the World Wide Web, Director of W3C

The World Wide Web has matured as it is decades old. Its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee tends to stay quiet and doesn't say too many proclamations. But when he does, he says things that should concern the overall web.

Berners-Lee imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.

"In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open."

But things change as the web embraces new trends. In his paper, Berners-Lee says that he is worried about three trends which he believes we all must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential: a tool which serves for all humanity.

The three challenges that threat the modern web have one common theme: large organizations in trading on the complexity and network effects of the entire social web. Big companies, given by their sheer size and influence, can dedicate their resources to figure out the best way to target internet users by collecting information from platforms that are available.

Using the information and data, they can show advertising and deliver contents that are precisely targeted, tailored to specific person. From age to gender, demographic to even political alignment. Users have almost no control over this, and they don't have a way to tell whether this is happening or not, nor the ability to stop it.

"These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple," said Berners-Lee.

"But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people."

"I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have protested in the streets."

Berners-Lee said that the Web Foundation is working hard to address the following three issues.

Tim Berners-Lee

1. People Have No Control Of Their Personal Data

The business model of many websites offer free contents in exchange for personal information. To use the free services many of them offer, users need to first agree on their long and confusing terms and conditions documents.

"This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with - or coercion of - companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused - bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens' best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far."

"It creates 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."

While some people don't mind some of their information being collected in exchange of free services, "But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realize if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it."

Furthermore, users often don't have any way of telling back to companies about the data they'd rather not share. Like for example, information that they want to keep confidential to third-parties.

2. Misinformation That Spreads Easily On The Web

"Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. 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."

Using the method, those websites can show contents they think people will click on.

Things that can either be surprising, shocking or designed to the viewers' biases are those that tend to appeal the most. This can, and had led to people seeing misinformation on the web, as occurred as "fake news." With bad intentions, this system can spread misinformation for financial or even political gains.

3. Online Political Advertising Needs Transparency And Understanding

"Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users."

Some advertisements that 'follow' users everywhere they go on the web, are being used in many unethical ways. Like pointing them to fake news websites, for instance.

"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. We urgently need to close the 'internet blind spot' in the regulation of political campaigning."

The internet is decentralized by design. and it should not be controlled by companies or the government. But the World Wide Web has however turned into the hands of large corporations and governments. According to Berners-Lee, this isn't what it meant to be.