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Can Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, save it from humanity?

Berners-Lee has launched a global campaign for a Magna Carta to “protect people’s rights online from threats such as fake news, prejudice and hate”
Sir Tim Berners Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of London
Tim Berners-Lee/Paul Clarke (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. Although the American government had been using something like it since the 1960s, he started enabling other engineers and scientists to share information more broadly. By 1990, he had written three fundamental technologies, URL, http, and html.

It turned out, almost everyone in the world wanted to share information. And engineer Berners-Lee, who never profited from his invention, is despondent at some of the developments such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and many lesser-known efforts at massive surveillance and manipulation:

“I was devastated,” Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. “Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.” Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted. KATRINA BROOKER, ““I Was Devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets” at Vanity Fair

Berners-Lee has launched a global campaign to produce a “Magna Carta” for the Web, in the form of a Contract to be published May 2019, which will “protect people’s rights online from threats such as fake news, prejudice and hate”:

“For many years there was a feeling that the wonderful things on the web were going to dominate and we’d have a world with less conflict, more understanding, more and better science, and good democracy,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “But people have become disillusioned because of all the things they see in the headlines.”

Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXTcube workstation, the first internet server, approx 1991/Coolcaesar  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said. Ian Sample, “Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse” at The Guardian

Not everyone sees Berners-Lee’s project as realistic. For one thing, acquiring and using masses of personal data without consent is the very basis of the business of the big social media companies, who are more powerful than many nation states:

In a crowning irony, the initiative carries support from Facebook and Google, two companies that hinge on mass data collection to grow their advertising businesses, and are no strangers to leaking that sensitive information in calamitous fashion. Signing on to the initiative might bolster Facebook’s PR after a prolonged period of terrible optics, but it doesn’t mean anything will necessarily change, and the interests of the social media giant are fundamentally opposed to the priorities of the document that carries its signature.
Sam Blum, “Tim Berners-Lee Wants a ‘Magna Carta’ to Save the Modern Internet. He’s Way Too Late” at Popular Mechanics

As Blum also reports, “The contract has proposals, like implementing ‘comprehensive data protection laws and strong operational frameworks,’ and ensuring ‘automated decisions are explainable and accountable to the people they are meant to serve.’” But that amounts to saying that government should provide oversight. Unfortunately, governments from China to Canada are already treating the private data of citizens as if it were a tool for tightly focused control or a natural resource. And China is teaching others to do the same. What is government oversight of privacy likely to mean in such a case except, perhaps, that the government and no one else is permitted to surveil every aspect of the citizen’s life? For that matter, some unstable governments may themselves be sources of hate propaganda. Then what re Magna Carta?

Taking a long view of the problem, one could say that the Web functions “in a dystopian way” because it reflects the world of which it is a part. Unrealistically ambitious reforms could easily morph into part of the problem. Incidentally, Magna Carta (1215), despite its reputation, was a fairly limited document. It limited what the king of England could enforce on or demand of his subjects. Medieval England was still a pretty harsh place by modern standards after Magna Carta. Perhaps it worked to the extent that it did because it was as much reform as was likely to happen.

a surviving page from Magna Carta, dated to 1216

See also: Is social media the best communications tool that ever happened? The worst communications tool that ever happened? Or something less comfortable than either? We hear all three views aired frequently these days, along with many prescriptions for reform.

Chilling snippet from mass surveillance in China China is helping other countries restrict their citizens’ internet, while shunning the U.S.

Canada demands intimate banking data from a half million citizens The goal of the program, recently uncovered by media, is to develop a “new institutional personal information bank” for government use.

Google branches out into politics

and

AI is indeed a threat to democracy But not in quite the way historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks (Michael Egnor)


Can Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, save it from humanity?