Web inventor warns over fake news, online political advertising


Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, has called for tighter regulation of online political advertising, which he says is being used in "unethical ways". Repressive regimes use that surveillance to harass opponents, but even benevolent governments have "a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion".

He submitted the open proposal for the Web in 1989, and imagined that it would be an open platform for anyone in any place to collaborate and share information and opportunities freely.

Berners-Lee also raised concerns about how quickly and effectively misinformation or fake news can spread across the internet.

He shared his concerns about what they consider to be an assault on privacy and cyber security, but has not stated how he plans to "save" the World Wide Web.

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He said current model of free content in exchange for personal data has led to people handing it over without giving enough thought to the long term implications.

Writing in an open letter marking the 28th anniversary of his invention, he said many people obtain news and information from a few social media sites and search engines. As with political advertising, the complexity of the technology now on the web has made it easier for businesses to target users with stories that may not be 100 percent accurate. In particular, 44 percent of Americans get news on Facebook, which has been criticized by some for its perceived influence on the presidential election.

Berners-Lee said that the Web Foundation, the organisation he founded in 2009 dedicated to improvement and availability of the web, is working on these issues as part of a five-year strategy. Citing another Guardian article, Berners-Lee also said that campaigns and marketing companies hired by campaigns created as many as 50,000 personalized ads targeted towards users based on their personal data every day on Facebook during the course of the 2016 election.

Sir Tim also hit out at politicians for targeting voters using sophisticated algorithms to tailor messages to ones they will support.

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"There are suggestions that some political adverts in the USA and around the world are being used in unethical ways to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls". He warned that "misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or created to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire".

"Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups".

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.

He urged for people to call for greater protection laws, and asked that Google and Facebook ramp up their efforts to tackle fake news.

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The web's creator wants to see more transparency in those terms and conditions we're always clicking through, as well as greater freedom from government monitoring, another effect of giving websites and app makers permission to gobble up our data.