Tim Berners-Lee Issues Warning About the Internet's Future

The internet has been weaponized and is currently under threat, warned Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist and creator of the World Wide Web (WWW).

In a letter posted online Monday, the 29th birthday of the WWW's 1989 invention, Berners-Lee said "misinformation and questionable political advertising" hosted on major social networking websites—who are the "new set of gatekeepers"—have changed the web significantly from its initial conception. He called for increased regulation.

The internet as we know it, initially funded in the 1960s by the U.S Department of Defense, is now dominated by a handful of platforms such as Google and Facebook who feed on the personal information of web users from around the world.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, receives an honorary Freedom of the City of London award in London on September 24, 2014. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The concentrated power of those firms, Berners-Lee said, was cause for concern. "We've looked to the platforms themselves for answers," he wrote.

"Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them—with each change they make affecting millions of people. The responsibility—and sometimes burden—of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions."

Under his title as director of the Web Foundation, the British computer expert said the divide between those who have access to the internet and those who don't is "deepening existing inequalities." In 2016, the United Nations ruled that access to the internet and protected online freedom was a human right.

Last year, social media giants, most of them headquartered in the United States, faced intense political pressure after admitting to being exploited by Russian internet trolls to spread misinformation and propaganda during the 2016 presidential election.

Internet and laptop
The invention of the World Wide Web helped usher in the age of the modern internet. Rawpixel/Unsplash

Berners-Lee stated that tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter now had control over which ideas and opinions were seen and shared online. He called for computer experts to "be a little more creative" in solving those problems.

"Dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors," he wrote. "They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry's top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last. What's more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale.

"We've seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data." He concluded: "I want to challenge us all to have greater ambitions for the web. I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfill our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions."