Insights into Editorial: The WWW turns 30
Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN began a project to create an information retrieval service on the internet.
The result, World Wide Web, was a phenomenon. Today, about half the world is online. A key reason for the web’s growth is the idealism behind its creation.
Berners-Lee says the idea was the web should be participatory, not disseminatory.
Revolution in Accessing Information:
Google is celebrating 30 years of WWW shared an adorable doodle showing an image of pretty old system loads the rotating globe, occupying the O in Google.
This indicates how important WWW is today in the history of mankind where a tiny invention intended to share documents turned out to be an artificial neural network of information widely traveling around the globe in milliseconds.
Consequently, not only can a child access all online public information from a remote home, citizens now directly engage heads of state.
But the other side of the coin is, It is the division of a multinational state into smaller ethnically homogeneous entities. The term also is used to refer to ethnic conflict within multi-ethnic states.
Difficulties in accessing Transparent Information:
The web’s scale and growth have been accompanied by challenges. Some of them are present offline too but online their negative impact is amplified.
The most dangerous threats emanate from state-sponsored groups which spread fake news to destabilise other countries.
State-led response to the challenges posed by a seamless online world has been to erect barriers or impose authoritarian regulations. Consequently, the web today is balkanised.
Network neutrality essentially occurs when Internet service providers allow access to all content and applications regardless of their source.
The neutrality is violated when certain products or websites are favoured or blocked by these providers. At the moment, network owners are not allowed to discriminate against information by slowing, changing, or blocking the transfer of any data online.
Net neutrality has been a source of contention between powerful governments around the world and the citizens they’re meant to serve.
A separate set of challenges come from internet companies which build business models that depend on dubious exploitation of data, triggering new problems centring on privacy.
However, Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor:
1) We’ve lost control of our personal data
- The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data.
- Many of us agree often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services.
- But we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.
- This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.
- It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.
2) It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
- Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines.
- These sites make more money when we click on the links, they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting.
- 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.
- 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.
3) Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
- Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry.
- The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users.
- One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor.
- Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?
The web needs rejuvenation as part of its journey forward from “digital adolescence”.
The touchstone or established standard for this journey should continue to be the idea of openness.
Only then can its full potential be harnessed. Therefore, net neutrality has to be the bedrock.
Yet, the evolution of the web makes the creation of a regulatory framework inevitable.
We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.
In India, this includes extending scope of some offline regulations as exemplified by Election Commission’s recent directions to Facebook to take down some political posters.
Separately, we need a comprehensive data protection law to actualise the fundamental right to privacy.
Regulation should be of light touch variety as that’s the only way to maximise the web’s transformational potential.