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The World Wide Web is 30, and Tim Berners-Lee has some thoughts

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. What was originally proposed as an information management system in 1989 has transformed beyond all recognition, but not all of the changes have been for the better as its inventor Tim Berners-Lee writes in an open letter to mark its 30th birthday.

Berners-Lee observes that while 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,” it has also “given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”

While Berners Lee writes that while “it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good,” it would be “defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.”

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us,” he writes. “We will have failed the web.”

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The letter goes on to highlight three issues with the web that Berners-Lee believe need to be fixed: deliberate, malicious intent; system designs that create perverse incentives; and unintended negative consequences.

“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline,” he writes. “The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change 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 doesn’t assign blame here, accepting that it’s a wider societal problem than that. “You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit,” he writes. “Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.”

His solution involves governments working together to translate laws and regulations into the digital age, and for companies to forsake short-term profit in the interest of promoting human rights, democracy, scientific fact and public safety. But, “most important of all”, the public must also do its bit to hold them both to account.

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“If we don’t elect politicians who defend a free and open web, if we don’t do our part to foster constructive healthy conversations online, if we continue to click consent without demanding our data rights be respected, we walk away from our responsibility to put these issues on the priority agenda of our governments.”

You can read the letter in full here.

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