The man who invented the web says it's now dysfunctional with 'perverse' incentives

  • Tim Berners-Lee first envisioned the World Wide Web 30 years ago.
  • In a letter published Monday, Berners-Lee said he understands concerns that the web is no longer a “force for good.”
  • Berners-Lee laid out three reasons why the web is dysfunctional, including “perverse incentives” from ad-based business models.

Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web was born.

But over the next 30 years, it needs to be “changed for the better,” according to its inventor.

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee laid out his vision for an information management system, which would become the World Wide Web, in March 1989. The blueprint would radically transform society as half the world’s population went online in just three decades. But in a letter published Monday marking the web’s 30th anniversary, Berners-Lee said he understands concerns that the internet is no longer a “force for good.”

“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time,” Berners-Lee said.

3 'sources of dysfunction'

In the letter, Berners-Lee laid out “three sources of dysfunction” affecting the web today. The first, he said, is deliberate and malicious behavior like state-sponsored hacking and online harassment. Berners-Lee made the case for new laws to curb this behavior online while still maintaining the openness of the internet.

“Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age,” he said. “They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open.”

An open web has been a sticking point for Berners-Lee. From the outset, he chose to make the underlying code of the World Wide Web available to anyone without a fee.

Berners-Lee said the system has since been designed with “perverse” incentives, which he sees as the second source of dysfunction in the web today. He singled out ad-based revenue models, used by many tech giants like Google and Facebook, that reward “clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.” The web’s inventor has previously attacked big tech companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter for exploiting people’s personal data.

“Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety,” he said in the letter Monday.

Finally, Berners-Lee pointed to the “unintended negative consequences” of the web’s design, like polarizing discussions taking place online. Citizens play the most important role, he said, in fostering healthy conversations on the internet and taking responsibility for their personal data.

Hate speech and bullying has become a hot-button issue for tech companies trying to balance free speech and potentially harmful content online. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, for example, have taken big steps to remove offensive content on their platforms. Meanwhile regulators around the world are weighing measures against big tech companies to better protect users’ personal data.

'Contract for the Web'

Last October, Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation released its “Contract for the Web” that laid out guidelines for citizens, companies and governments to help put the web back on its original course. The proposal has been backed by politicians, industry groups and major tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, but it’s unclear whether it’s had any direct effect on business. Berners-Lee said in his letter Monday the group aims to have a result from the initiative later this year.

One pillar of the contract is treating the web as a basic right for everyone, an idea that is far from reality today. The World Bank estimates roughly half of the world’s population still does not have access to the internet. In a report published Monday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found more than four in 10 rural households in OECD countries don’t have access to the fast fixed broadband needed to support the Internet of Things, whereas nearly nine in 10 households in urban areas have fast connections.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” Berners-Lee said Monday.

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