Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a London-born computer scientist who invented the web in 1989, voiced his disappointment at what it has become, warning that Silicon Valley’s abuse of personal data and creation of social media platforms that spread hate have played an important role in undermining what was supposed to be a positive technology for everyone to access.
“I am disappointed with the current state of the web,” he said. “We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked.”
During the interview, Berners-Lee, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford, criticized Facebook for enabling Cambridge Analytica to obtain the personal data of 87 million of its users and questioned whether Twitter Inc. (TWTR) was built to fuel hatred.
“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?’”
The scientist proposed introducing measures to break up the tech companies that rule the web, provided that a rise in competition or changes in taste don’t get to them first.
“What naturally happens is you end up with one company dominating the field so through history there is no alternative to really coming in and breaking things up,” Berners-Lee said. “There is a danger of concentration.”
He added: “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.”
Berners-Lee, who started the World Wide Web Foundation to advance the open web as a public good and a basic right, made similar comments in March. In a blog post on the foundation's website, he proposed introducing “a legal or regulatory framework” to keep the big players in check.
In the post, he referred to the dominant technology companies as “gatekeepers” that control what ideas and opinions are shared.
“What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms,” he wrote. “This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.”
Berners-Lee also expressed concern at the divide of people able to access the internet, claiming that the dramatic slowdown in global accessibility is “deepening existing inequalities.” The Guardian recently cited UN data analyzed by Berners-Lee's foundation and reported that growth in global internet access dropped from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% last year.