Web in­ven­tor con­fronts his cre­ation

The Southland Times - - TECHNOLOGY&SCIENCE - BRAD STONE

The web is 28 years old but these days it of­ten ap­pears to have the grow­ing pains of a teenager.

There’s the scourge of fake news, grow­ing pock­ets of cen­sor­ship around the world, the fiery de­bate over net neu­tral­ity, and more. When teens get into trou­ble, you typ­i­cally talk to the par­ents. For the web, that is Sir Tim Bern­ers-Lee, a com­puter sci­en­tist who pro­posed the idea of us­ing a tool called a web browser to visit dis­tinct pages on the in­ter­net. He was re­cently in­ter­viewed at at World Wide Web con­sor­tium meet­ing, and things got in­ter­est­ing, fast.

When asked if he oc­ca­sion­ally felt like Dr Franken­stein, won­der­ing, ‘‘What have I wrought?’’ while watch­ing the un­fold­ing saga of fake news on the web and its im­pli­ca­tions for democ­ra­cies. ‘‘Yeah, I have,’’ he replied. His con­cerns dur­ing the web’s first 25 years fo­cused on ex­pand­ing ac­cess to more peo­ple. But now he thinks the web has be­come as com­plex and in­tri­cate as a hu­man brain – so the tech in­dus­try re­quires a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proach to ‘‘look out for un­in­tended con­se­quences’’ and study the im­pact of ser­vices as they are in­tro­duced to the world.

But too of­ten web com­pa­nies just plough ahead with­out un­der­stand­ing the con­se­quences. He crit­i­cised Google, Facebook and Twit­ter for cre­at­ing ad­ver­tis­ing sys­tems that, for ex­am­ple, in­cen­tivised fake-news pur­vey­ors.

‘‘They didn’t do that out of mal­ice,’’ Bern­ers-Lee said. ‘‘They did it com­mer­cially, not even car­ing about who won the elec­tion. But Google gave them money [to do it], and that trained them to think of head­lines like, ‘Hil­lary re­ally wants Trump to win’.’’

Bern­ers-Lee was also asked if he was wor­ried that big tech com­pa­nies have too much power.

He said the giants of the past, such as AT&T, AOL and Mi­crosoft, were once con­sid­ered unas­sail­able, only to be up­ended by un­ex­pected com­peti­tors: ‘‘It’s amaz­ing how quickly peo­ple can pick stuff up on the in­ter­net; it’s also amaz­ing how quickly they can drop it,’’ he said. But he wor­ries that ‘‘you can’t imag­ine hav­ing such a strong dom­i­nance in these mar­kets with­out los­ing out on in­no­va­tion.’’

Dis­cussing ef­forts to cen­sor in­ter­net con­tent, he said early in the web’s history, there was a be­lief that ‘‘in­for­ma­tion wants to be free’’ – that in­ter­net users would find ways to route around at­tempts at cen­sor­ship. Bern­er­sLee con­ceded that think­ing was a ‘‘a bit sim­plis­tic.’’

He said there was ‘‘no magic recipe that the in­ter­net will be able to solve cen­sor­ship, so cen­sor­ship is some­thing we have to protest against.’’

Obliquely ref­er­enc­ing coun­tries that re­strict in­ter­net con­tent he said: ‘‘Open­ness is a sign of a strong gov­ern­ment. You can be strong in lots of dif­fer­ent ways. The abil­ity to be strong enough to al­low peo­ple to see the al­ter­na­tive views of the op­po­si­tion is a par­tic­u­lar strength which I hope var­i­ous coun­tries will find.’’

Bern­ers-Lee also said it was im­por­tant for peo­ple to be able to own and con­trol their own data and that com­pa­nies should think twice be­fore as­sum­ing it was a busi­ness as­set.

‘‘It used to be said that data is the new oil,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it’s like nu­clear fuel. It’s be­com­ing toxic. Two years ago, the ques­tion from the board was, ‘How are we mon­etis­ing the data?’ Now the ques­tion is, ‘‘How are we pro­tect­ing our­selves from the dam­age of this get­ting out?’’’

I asked Bern­ers-Lee if he owned a con­nected as­sis­tant like the Ama­zon Echo or Google Home.

He saidno; he be­lieves when con­ver­sa­tions and queries are recorded in our home and trans­ferred to the cloud, they in­evitably be­come vul­ner­a­ble to in­trud­ers and ac­ces­si­ble to pry­ing gov­ern­ments.

Sound­ing very un­like the web pi­o­neer who cre­ated the web nearly three decades ago, he vowed, ‘‘We must re­sist these tech­nolo­gies.’’ – Bloomberg

GETTY

Sir Tim Bern­ers-Lee says there’s ‘‘no magic recipe that the in­ter­net will be able to solve cen­sor­ship’’.

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