Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is suggesting that regulation might be the answer to fixing the internet.
In an open letter marking the 29th anniversary of his invention, Berners-Lee said the internet is becoming an oligopoly, in which only a few platforms dominate the web.
“This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared,” he said.
His letter didn’t recommend breaking up the oligopoly. But it did raise questions over whether these internet giants could effectively police themselves. Berners-Lee pointed to the problem of bad actors exploiting social media.
“The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale,” he said.
Berners-Lee mentioned the rise of conspiracy theories on social media and how fake Twitter and Facebook accounts can easily spread propaganda. Hackers have also been able to steal troves of data by breaching one platform.
“We’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers,” Berners-Lee said. However, these same companies don’t necessarily have the public’s best interest in mind, he warned.
“The responsibility — and sometimes burden — of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good,” he said. “A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.”
Berners-Lee wrote the letter a year after he voiced similar fears in an op-ed regarding fake news and unwarranted data collection. His latest statements don’t exactly paint a rosy picture for the future. In the same letter, he warned that the internet industry has less incentive to innovate. This is because the dominant platforms now have the power to buy startup challengers, acquire the latest technologies and hire away the top talent.
“We can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last,” he said.
Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is calling on the tech industry to think beyond established business models for something better. “Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate,” he said. “On both points, we need to be a little more creative.”
His letter also called for the world to close the digital divide and introduce affordable internet access to the most in need.
“Today, I want to challenge us all to have greater ambitions for the web,” he added. “I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfill our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions.”