The 30th birthday of the World Wide Web saw its founder publish an open letter reflecting on how the web has changed our world. He identifies what must be done to build a better web that serves all of humanity.
“The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone. And while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” wrote Berners-Lee in 30 years on, what’s next #ForTheWeb? (12 March 2019).
He went on to pinpoint three “sources of dysfunction” affecting today’s web:
- Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
- System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
- Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.
Berners-Lee argues that while the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create laws and code to minimize this behaviour. The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that changes incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.
Berners-Lee calls on:
- Governments to translate laws and regulations for the digital age. “They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online.”
- Companies to do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. “Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind.”
- Citizens to hold companies and governments accountable “for the commitments they make, and demand that both respect the web as a global community with citizens at its heart.”
All well and good. But how does this translate into effective practices that are both ethical and fully accountable?