Recently, the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, laid out a perspective on the dangers of the internet in 2017. While I admire the man’s perspective, on all three points his solutions attack the wrong problems and if set in motion would turn the free exchange of ideas into a policed shell of the Internet he claims to be seeking the best interest of.
The Three Dangers to the Internet
Before diving any deeper, here are the headings excerpted:
1) We’ve lost control of our personal data
2) It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
3) Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
The open market on personal data on the internet, made popular (and fantastically rich) by Web 2.0 darlings like Facebook and Google, has gone too far. On that point, I certainly agree. People willingly give away as much personal data as they can to “connect more,” sometimes out of blind faith that the company they’re handing it to won’t use it for bad reasons.
I also agree that government, especially the US’s, has used these troves of data, and the third parties that hold them, as an end-run around the right to privacy implicit in the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. Shame on government, shame on the companies that more or less let them do it, and shame on a shoddy legal structure that makes stealth monitoring of this type perfectly okay.
But really, shame on the people who give as much data as they can away, with minimal “return” for it. A cold maxim on the internet is that if the service is free, your data is in some way being sold to pay for it. Or to put it even shorter, “if you aren’t being sold a product, you are the product.”
This is an awareness issue at its core. Too many people presume good faith out of entities that have no reason to do that beyond vague concepts of “accountability.” And when many of these entities either don’t care about what people think (e.g., the CIA, NSA) or are so big that a few people leaving in protest don’t touch the bottom line (e.g., Google), is it any wonder that our data gets sold, spied on, or whatever else without pause?
Pushing for legislation is important, but what really needs to be solved is awareness of what it really means to fill out a profile on the latest social media site.
So Berners-Lee has a problem with “fake news.” Setting aside that mainstream news seems more guilty of it than any other outlet not named The Onion, his solution is abhorrent: Somebody needs to arbitrate what is “true” and “fake” news, with “fake” news being utterly blocked from visibility to internet users.
That isn’t free exchange of information. That isn’t the exact same things that he created the World Wide Web to engender. Free exchange includes potentially inaccurate or misleading information, and anyone who would seek to be judge will inevitably choose “wrong” from personal bias, political pressures, or any number of potential problems.
And again, this is an awareness issue. Fake news is generally pretty obvious with a minor amount of research done into the topic. People need to stop taking what they see or read at face value, and dig a little deeper to find out “is it truly so?” Then the number of celebrity death hoaxes, crazy nutjob conspiracy theories, and whatever other “fake news” articles out there will be blatantly obvious on their face. No need to censor what’s ridiculous.
And yes, “combating fake news” is censorship.
Ah, the favorite whipping boy of people who dislike our admittedly corrupt, overly bloated, and impossibly too influential political system (isn’t just the US with this problem): political ads.
Transparency and disclosure is what Berners-Lee calls for, but again this amounts to blocking free speech. Disclosure leads to things like a personal donation getting someone fired because the organization doesn’t agree with progressivism. It chills speech because too many people have proven time and time again their willingness to destroy someone else’s life for having a disagreement in political views.
I’ll admit that big data, A|B Testing, and the like have revolutionized the nature of advertising, but for a third and final time this is an awareness issue. If someone is being told a contradictory message, it’s intelligent to research it to find out if it really is true. No algorithm is going to beat simple critical thinking and a healthy amount of skepticism. (One would think advertising is already treated with a huge amount of skepticism)
For all three of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s problems, the root cause is a lack of awareness on the part of people using the internet. No system, no algorithm, no supposedly transparently-neutral program is going to solve that. Instead, those same systems, algorithms, and programs will be readily used to censor and remove “objectionable/fake/misleading” content, letting a literal speech police decide what we are allowed to say and not say on the supposedly free internet.
Yes, there are dangers on the internet, but no, having companies control it even more is not the solution.