Building a better Internet

13 Mar 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Building a better Internet

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

As the Web turns 30, its creator says it would be both defeatist and unimaginative to suggest it cannot be changed for the better. Here, Ray Snoddy sizes up the scale of the challenge.

The Sun has just published a remarkable article – on page 10 - and it has absolutely nothing to do with Brexit.

In fact its Brexit front page splash headline - “Croaky Horror Show” - was not up to its highest standards, mistaking the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May was losing her voice for the heart of the matter.

There on page 10, opposite a story about a “darts rat” splitting from his missus, was the open letter from Sir Tim Berners-Lee marking the 30th anniversary of his initial idea that led to the creation of the World Wide Web.

Who knows how many Sun readers will read the article to the end with its appeal to wrest the Internet back from those who have exploited it for criminal, cynical and greedy purposes. Never mind, it was there as an important symbol of the need to create “a new Contract for the Web.”

Its appearance might just have something to do with the fact that the 30th anniversary letter coincided with an appearance by Sun owner Rupert Murdoch before an Australian inquiry into the impact of the huge digital platforms.

Unsurprisingly Murdoch called for Google to be broken up because of the damage caused to both consumers and publishers.

Never mind, despite the occasional conflict of interest there is a mood abroad that something now has to be done about the dark side of Sir Tim’s invention offered initially for the common good.

Sir Tim’s letter also coincided with the publication of a report for the Treasury led by former Obama advisor James Furman.

The report, which could lead to action from Chancellor Philip Hammond, argues that governments need new powers and dedicated regulators to challenge the might of companies such as Google and Facebook.

The dominance of the five largest US tech giants is so great that they have a combined worth of £2.7 trillion and have created a “winner-takes-most” market.

In particular the Furman report emphasises the fact that the five – Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft - have bought up no less than 400 companies to absorb, or possibly suppress, their ideas.

The overall effect is to enshrine market dominance and deny consumers realistic competition and choice.

Furman, a Harvard professor, wants to see the creation of a digital markets unit which could be stand-alone or run by the Competition and Markets Authority or communications regulator Ofcom.

Last week the Information Commissioners Office made it clear the need for age checks on those signing up to social media would be part of a tough new code of practice being drawn up by the ICO.

If the social media giants could not implement formal age checks to exclude children from unsuitable material then they would have to assume that all their users were children.

To back up such regulations, fines could be up to 4 per cent of turnover, adding up to more than £1 billion for the larger social media players.

At around the same time the French Government took action to curb another social abuse of the social media groups - a marked reluctance to pay what many would think was a fair share of tax.

The French are imposing a 3 per cent revenue tax on digital companies with global revenues of more than £645 million and French revenues of more than £25 million.

The UK is at work on a similar digital services tax, although a European Union-wide tax appears to be facing lengthy delays at best.

The trouble with all of this is its piecemeal nature, when what is needed is a global response to what is a global corporate phenomena.

And that’s where we come back to The Sun and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Sir Tim argues that if we merely chase symptoms rather than root causes, we will merely exhaust ourselves.

“To get this right we will need to come together as a global web community,” the scientist argues.

He highlights three obvious problems in search of a solution: deliberate malicious intent, criminality and state-sponsored hacking; commercial ad-based models that reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation; unintended consequences such as outraged polarised tones and the quality of online discourse.

To all of these things Sir Tim says it would be “defeatist and unimaginative” to suggest that the web cannot be changed for the better in the next 30 years.

Government must create new laws for the digital age to ensure that markets remain “competitive, innovative and open.” Individuals too must do their bit by refusing to carelessly click away consent without ensuring their data rights are respected.

“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time,” says Sir Tim - who also argues that the half of the world not already on the web should not be left behind.

His central idea is the Contract for the Web to ensure that everyone contributes to an Internet that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.

This, he sees as a continuing process rather a list of quick fixes to create a new understanding of how we view our relationship with the web.

“The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want,” insists Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

If anyone has earned the right to dream it is the man who set out a plan at CERN for the sharing of online information only for his then boss to dismiss is with the comment “vague but exciting.”

He earned it by giving his intellectual property to the world rather than seeking patents – even though that course led to money-making machines coming out of the dorms of leading American universities.

Dreams and goodwill should, however, be helped by tough regulations and hefty fines just in case everyone is not equally susceptible to the power of dreams.

And maybe Rupert Murdoch is right and some of the social media giants should be broken up, even if it is a case of an elderly billionaire trying to take a stick to younger, even richer variants of the species.

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