Saving the Web from Humanity

28 years ago today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the web in a memo to his bosses at CERN, the European Union’s research center for nuclear energy. While nuclear energy is in decline in Europe, the web is going gangbusters, reaching more people and more devices, and carrying more data than ever.

But there’s trouble in paradise. The web hasn’t ushered in the era of radical democracy and liberal democratic values that it was supposed to bring about. While the web did contribute to democratic uprisings in some countries, movements such as the Arab Spring and the Orange Revolution didn’t have legs.

Web Inventor Weighs In

Web inventor Berners-Lee has expressed concern about the state of the web for at least a decade. In 2006, he stepped up for net neutrality because of concerns that a business model that allowed ISPs to customize the manner of their interconnection to web services would be destructive to democratic, open platforms:

Sir Tim argues that service providers may be hurting themselves by pushing for tiered pricing. The Internet’s extraordinary growth has been fueled by the limitless vistas the Web offers surfers, bloggers and downloaders. Customers who are used to the robust, democratic Web may not pay for one that is restricted to wealthy corporate content providers.

ISPs don’t interconnect to all services on an equal basis today, of course. High-volume services like Netflix who have hundreds of millions of users have very different forms of interconnection than do small sites with dozens or less. And all video streaming sites have different kinds of interconnection agreements with ISPs than do classical web sites.

Despite these differences, it continues to be easy for any website, large or small, to reach the entire Internet, more or less. Net neutrality regulations are still confined to the most privileged nations and haven’t brought about enforcement actions or significant changes in behavior, apart from less investment in the US.

Net neutrality was not the cure-all that Berners-Lee said it was in 2006 because there was no disease to cure.

Trouble in Paradise

Things are not entirely right with the web, of course. As Sir Tim himself admits, there are serious problems afoot:

Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the worldwide web. I 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 over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fu

The three problems are profiling, fake news, and political advertising. These are in fact three manifestations of the same problem: Internet services are financed by advertising. The ad networks that surveil us on the web log our behavior in order to sell targeted ads; fake news is on the rise because of the pay-per-click business models employed by Facebook and Google; and political ads make money for web sites.

So what do we do about the fact that an economic sector supported by ad sales is obsessed with doing things that sell ads?

Sir Tim’s Solutions

Sir Tim proposes to give us more control over which data we share with advertisers and which we don’t:

As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

While you can often elicit hosannas by proposing “giving users control over their data” at Internet festivals, in real life this isn’t practical. Although two major players – Facebook and Google – sell most of the ads, there are hundreds of other players in the game focused on narrow niches. Most of the web pages we see are adorned with dozens of web trackers, and we really can’t be bothered to fill out questionnaires on all the things we’re not willing to share.  And if we were, personalized policies are too cumbersome for web sites and ad networks to deal with.

It’s also not the case that we lose out on the benefits of sharing our histories with advertisers when they log the data. The benefits to web users are more sites to visit – because they make money – and more relevant ads.

There are longer-term benefits as well: the ability of transportation networks to optimize routes and for health networks to chart disease flow absolutely depend on our data being under the control of parties that can aggregate trends across large population groups.

Faking the News

Berners-Lee’s analysis of the causes of fake news is spot on:

These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.

It’s not an aberration, it’s an expected consequence of the advertising business model. Ad networks and algorithmic feeds try to show us things we want to see because that’s exactly what we want them to do. Algorithmic targeting is the perfect expression of that old idea that the web is a democratic, personalized medium.

So the web has become a tabloid medium, like the New York Post or the UK’s Sun, because it’s fundamentally democratic. Most people like to be amused, entertained, and titillated, so that’s what the web does. Berners-Lee may have believed he was creating a system for high-minded, thoughtful reflection, but what he really created was the ultimate printing press for the tabloids.

Is This Really a Problem?

If we want the web to promote learning, meditation, and reflection, we’re going to need a better class of human beings. As that’s not immediately forthcoming, I’m content to celebrate it for what it is: a raucous, free-wheeling, irreverent, tasteless, and out-of-control medium that welcomes a wide variety of voices. Just as net neutrality wasn’t a vital solution to the problems Sir Tim complained about a decade ago, censoring fake news isn’t a realistic solution to the web’s current problems.

We can only stem the flow of fake news by being more engaged and more democratic. As people new to the Internet come to realize that most of the web is fake, they’re less likely to be persuaded by outlandish tales even if they’re amused by them.

New technologies always require a period of adaptation by the people who use them, and at 28 years old the web is still very young. While I can understand the feelings of inventors who are disappointed by the crasser uses of their creations, we have to accept the fact that we need to take the bad with the good. The inventor puts the system out into the world, and the world makes of it what it wants.

So enjoy the ride. And if you can’t do that, perhaps you should read an improving book as the web isn’t your cup of tea.