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World Wide Web

Internet founder speaks out on web’s 30th birthday

World Wide Web

Internet founder speaks out on web’s 30th birthday

Tim Berners-Lee, the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, has penned an open letter and given an exclusive interview with the BBC, sharing both positive and negative thoughts about where the internet stands 30 years on from its inception.

Credited with proposing the idea of the internet in 1989, Berners-Lee says in his letter that the web has done wonders in giving a voice to marginalised groups and making our everyday lives easier, but also concedes that it has spawned hatred, and given rise to a whole new type of crime.

In his BBC interview, Berners-Lee’s words were a little darker, talking of the internet experiencing a “downward plunge” at the moment. He said he believed the web’s first 15 years made it a force for good, but that he is concerned about the current level of “nastiness and misinformation” being spread online.

His letter outlines three dysfunctional aspects of the internet that need tackling, with the 63-year-old computer scientist stressing that it will take a global effort from governments, businesses and the general public to rectify them, and that just blaming one party is not a solution.

The first problem he notes is deliberate malicious conduct such as hacking, online bullying and harassment, and cybercrime. Berners-Lee accepts that this can never by completely eradicated, but suggests laws need to adapt to it in the same way as they do with crime in the offline world.

Berners-Lee also criticises the rise of clickbait and misinformation as a root to financial gain, and thirdly, discusses what is arguably the biggest problem – poor quality and polarised online discourse, much of which occurs accidentally.

Notably, he also mentions a growing divide between those with internet access and those without, stressing that this emphasises the need to make the net available to all.

Is Berners-Lee right?

Berners-Lee is a passionate man who is fascinating to listen to, and his open letter is well-worth a read in full. It’s very hard to argue with the points he makes, but at the same time, I think the solutions to the three issues he raises are fairly brief and vague. This suggests that the creator is not necessarily the best repairer.

Nonetheless, we should listen carefully when the man most involved in formulating the web expresses such concerns about its future. It’s encouraging that he does say he is optimistic about the web’s future, but his words are a reminder that some of the most influential minds – including those of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking – are giving us words of warning.

John Murray

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