News Desk: The inventor of the World Wide Web has expressed his fears about fake news, as he unveiled plans to tackle “unethical” political advertising and the harvesting of data.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee said in an open letter marking 28 years since his invention that the misuse of data has created a “chilling effect on free speech” and warned of “internet blind spots” that are corrupting democracy.
The British computer scientist, 61, said one problem is that most people get their news and information from 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,” Sir Tim added.
“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, he said.
“But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far,” Sir Tim 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 hit out at politicians for targeting voters using sophisticated algorithms to tailor messages to ones they will support.
“Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?” he said.
Sir Tim, who submitted his original proposal for the web on 12 March 1989, urged people to lobby for greater protection laws and for Google and Facebook increase their efforts to tackle fake news.
He said the online “blind spot” in political campaigning must be closed, while alternative revenue streams must be looked at to ensure data is not sold so indiscriminately.
The Web Foundation, which Sir Tim set up in 2009, will work on these issues in a five-year strategy.