The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has said the impact of fake news is increasingly concerning and unveiled plans to tackle “unethical” political advertising and the harvesting of data.
The British computer scientist said, exactly 28 years after his invention, three new trends have become alarming in the last year.
In an open letter, the 61-year-old said misuse of data has created a “chilling effect on free speech” and warned of “internet blind spots” that are corrupting democracy.
One problem, he wrote, is that most people find their news and information through a “handful” of social media sites and search engines, which are paid whenever someone clicks a link.
“The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire,” he said.
“And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”
Companies and governments are using widespread data collection to “trample on our rights”, leading to bloggers being arrested and killed by repressive regimes, Sir Tim added.
“But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far,” he wrote.
“It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”
Sir Tim also criticised politicians for targeting voters using sophisticated algorithms to tailor messages to ones they will approve of.
“Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?” he said.
Sir Tim urged people to call for greater protection laws and for Google and Facebook to increase their efforts to tackle fake news.
He said the “internet blind spot” in political campaigning must be closed, while alternative revenue streams must be explored so data is not sold so indiscriminately.
He plans for the Web Foundation, which he founded in 2009, to work on the issues in a five-year strategy.
“It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”
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