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Web inventor Berners-Lee warns of fake-news threat

As the web turns 28, its creator is keen to point out its problems.

Tim Berners-Lee
Stop right there, fake news. Tim Berners-Lee has a bone to pick.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has weighed in on what's becoming the internet hot potato of the year: the spread of fake news.

Twenty-eight years to the day since he submitted his original proposal for the creation of the World Wide Web, the internet pioneer published an open letter on Sunday describing the problems with the web that are causing him to feel "increasingly worried."

It's not the first time Berners-Lee has weighed in on what he identifies as problems with the glorious monster he created. In the past he's spoken out against issues including government surveillance, freedom of expression and internet shutdowns.

Right now there are three issues troubling him:

  • People losing control of their personal data
  • The spread of misinformation and "fake news" through social media and search engines
  • Online political advertising, which he says needs more transparency and understanding

Of these, it's fake news that's making headlines around the world at the moment. A problem as old as the internet itself, the debate about the quick spread of fake news rose to prominence following the US presidential election last year. Many claimed that fake news reports influenced the outcome of the election, and since coming to power, President Donald Trump has used the phrase in attacks on mainstream media.

Berners-Lee is concerned about how easily fake news can spread -- "like wildfire" -- by appealing to our biases to the benefit of bad guys gaming the system for financial or political gain.

"We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is 'true' or not," he said in the letter.

The web pioneer linked to a story about Facebook and Google teaming to quash the spread of fake news in France and Germany, both of which will hold elections in the coming months.

But he also called for them to act with more "algorithmic transparency" so people have a better understanding of important decisions being made about the kinds of things we see online.

Linking to a document on "accountable algorithms" put together by machine-learning experts, he suggested one solution might be to create a set of principles companies would commit to following.

In the meantime, he called on individual web users to get involved by putting pressure on companies and governments. He hopes such pressure can help ensure that the web lives up to his original vision of "an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries."

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