The famed inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has written an open letter marking the web’s 28th anniversary, with a plan to tackle data abuse and fake news. The plan, set out over a five-year period, is a strategy to answer concerns about how the web is being used and he wants to start combating the misuse of personal data that impedes on free speech.
He is calling all the people who have helped develop the web with blogs, tweets, photos, videos and web pages to propose practical solutions to make a web that provides opportunity and equal power to all. Users of the web are often not able to easily tell outlets what personal data they would like and not like shared with others. The terms and conditions, which heavily favor the provider, are typically “all or nothing.” That puts users in an extremely unfair position regarding their personal data and users are more likely to just accept a ToC rather than forgo use of the service.
A reliance on certain algorithms have favored sensationalist information, designed to instill surprise or shock, just to have higher click rates. This is the reason why “fake news” will go viral much faster than other news and the more people share, the more the algorithms favor it and show it to more people. Social media makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the real and fictional stories apart. The sharing of personal data to social networks designs the fictional stories based on previous history with the service and what you’ve shared. Take notice of how many settings in Facebook, that once were “Only Me” are now only “Everyone, Friends, or Friends of Friends.”
This past election cycle brought fake news into the spotlight of conversations and people from President Trump to Pope Francis have claimed stories about them have been fake. Pope Francis was reported to have backed Donald Trump’s presidency campaign that was refuted. Donald Trump himself has used “fake news” to refer to anything critical about his administration, highlighting organization such as CNN, NYTimes, and the BBC.
Sir Tom is advocating for transparency for how web pages appear on user devices, suggesting a common set of principles, so users can start to understand how these systems work. Fake news, targeted advertising, “shock and awe” click-bait headlines, etc. We’re all victims of the industry using ever more complicated and sophisticated algorithms and predictive systems to lure us into a story that may or may not be the truth. Nothing about these solutions will be simple, or easy, but they are absolutely necessary to protect our freedom of speech in the electronic frontier.