On World Wide Web’s 29th birthday, Tim Berners-Lee criticizes its “gatekeepers” such as Facebook and suggests more regulation
Getty ImagesComputer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, the “father of the World Wide Web.”DMAMBMCMDMEMGPREVIEWZBZBRZDZDRZFZGZQZRZSZTZU
“The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale.”
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
As the World Wide Web celebrated its 29th birthday last Monday, its creator sounded disappointed about how his invention turned out — so he’s suggesting regulators should crack down on tech giants.
What’s got Tim Berners-Lee riled up is the way dominant platforms such as Facebook have used their popularity. The Oxford professor says the tools they offer and the choices they make behind the scenes play too big a part in steering the conversation — to the detriment of society.
“The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today,” Berners-Lee said in a blog post on Monday. “What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.”
“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.
The dominant players have cemented their position at the top by creating barriers for competitors, hiring the tech industry’s top talent, and buying up inventions and startup challengers, according to Berners-Lee.
The British computer scientist zeroed in on Facebook (FB)and Twitter (TWTR) : “The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.”
The companies behind such platforms are trying to improve the state of affairs. But there still may be a role for a legal or regulatory framework that takes social objectives into account, Berners-Lee suggested.
“Today’s powerful digital economy calls for strong standards that balance the interests of both companies and online citizens,” he wrote.
Berners-Lee gets credit for inventing the web 29 years ago this week because he first presented a proposal for a system to connect computers in a network on March 12, 1989. Vint Cerf and Robert E. Kahn are widely considered the fathers of the internet.
In Berners-Lee’s view, it’s a myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, as is the idea that it’s too late to change the way social-media platforms operate.
And the tech legend says the problems facing the web should be viewed as bugs — problems in software that can be fixed.
“I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfill our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions,” he said. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.”
Berners-Lee is hardly alone in fretting about Silicon Valley’s juggernauts. Scott Galloway, founder of marketing company L2 and a New York University professor, has called for breaking up Facebook, Google (GOOG)(GOOGL) , Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN) .
“A key part of a healthy economic cycle is pruning firms when they become invasive, cause premature death, and won’t let other firms emerge,” Galloway wrote in a recent Esquire piece. “The breakup of big tech should and will happen, because we’re capitalists. It’s time.”
Read more: Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook will all go away within 50 years, says author
This story was first published on March 12, 2018.
Victor Reklaitis is a London-based markets writer for MarketWatch. Follow him on Twitter @VicRek.
More From MarketWatch