Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has called for the internet to grow out of its “adolescent” phase as he marks the 30th anniversary of its invention.
Sir Tim called on the public and politicians to “come together” to end its misuse, although he also acknowledged that it had created opportunities for good.
Speaking to reporters at CERN, the physics research centre outside Geneva where he invented the web, Sir Tim said users of the web had found it “not so pretty” recently.
“They are all stepping back, suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections, realising that this web thing that they thought was that cool is actually not necessarily serving humanity very well,” he said. “It seems we don’t finish reeling from one privacy disaster before moving onto the next one.”
He also voiced concerns that it had become a space used by “scammers” and “given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.
There is also a threat of fragmentation of the Internet into regulatory blocs - in the United States, the European Union, China and elsewhere - which would be “massively damaging”. In February this year, Russia tested disconnecting itself from global internet servers as it prepares to route all internet traffic through local providers.
First proposed by Sir Tim in 1989 as an information management system while he was working for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), around half of the world’s population is now online.
Many of the world’s largest web-based companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, have come under scrutiny in recent years over data privacy issues and the rising spread of malicious and offensive content.
In his letter, Sir Tim said it would be “defeatist and unimaginative” to assume that the web could not be changed for the better given how far it has come in its first 30 years, but urged governments, organisations and the public to work together to improve the current system and make it available to everyone.
“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us - we will have failed the web,” he said. “It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future”.
He outlined what he called three sources of dysfunction that must be addressed: “deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment”; “system design” which has created “perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait”, and the “viral spread of misinformation”.
Sir Tim also called for a response to the “unintended negative consequences” of the web, which he said had led to “the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse”.
His letter reads: “While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline.
“The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.”
Amid the concern, Sir Tim said the 30th anniversary was something to celebrate and warmly recalled how Mike Sendall, his boss at CERN, ordered a specific computer model that CERN did not possess - a NeXT Cube, created by the computer company that Steve Jobs established during his time away from Apple - as a deliberate “plot” to enable his project under the guise of testing the interoperability of different computers.