Ad-based revenue models “reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation”
Thirty years ago today, British software engineer Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his boss that “discusses the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and drecives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.
“Vague, but exciting”, came the response. As the World Wide Web turns 30, few would disagree that exciting remains the operative word. And back in March 1989 Berners-Lee, then working at CERN, was intent on rapidly making his proposal less vague.
By October of 1990, Tim had written the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation of today’s web:
1) HTML: HyperText Markup Language. The markup (formatting) language for the web;
1) URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. A kind of “address” that is unique and used to identify to each resource on the web. It is also commonly called a URL
2) HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the web.
By the end of 1990, the first web page was served on the open internet, and in 1991, people outside of CERN, where he worked, were invited to join this new web community. Yet 30 years later, all is not well with his creation, he believes.
World Wide Web Turns 30: Tim Berners-Lee on Three Sources of Dysfunction
In 1990, I coded up the foundational technologies for the World Wide Web.
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) March 12, 2019
Yet few, also, would disagree that all is not entirely well online. As Berners-Lee put it in a letter today: “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.”
As the World Wide Web turns 30 the system has since been designed with “perverse” incentives, Berners-Lee now believes, which he sees as one of three core sources of dysfunction in the web today.
The first, “deliberate malicious intent” will be impossible to eradicate completely, he notes. The second, ad-based revenue models that reward “clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation” he said, demand the “redesign of systems in a way that change incentives.” (The third, he described as the “unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse”). Quite how those systems can be redesigned is an open question.
In an attempt to tackle these challenges his non-profit Web Foundation has launched a “Contract for the Web” urging a better regulated, more private and more open internet in a bid to push back against the “attention wars” being fought on the internet.
Whether what amounts to a wish list will have any impact remains to be seen, but 30 years after his creation, few could deny its creator continues to work overtime to help try and raise it well. Commenting on the anniversary, Constance Bommelaer de Leusse o The Internet Society told Computer Business Review: “One of the main challenges and opportunities that the web faces on its thirtieth anniversary is power – and more specifically, the distribution of power.”
“Many web platforms are evolving to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for users; it’s entirely possible that you could spend a week online and only use online services provided by a handful of players. Such ‘full service environments’ operate at a scale that allows entrepreneurs to do things they could not otherwise, like access a far larger customer base, resources, and expertise that no small business could tap using its own limited resources or time.”
She added: “These trends occur beyond the web, at the access and infrastructure layer of the internet, the web’s big brother. For example, DNS, the service that allows us to convert “www” into IP addresses and find websites more easily, is handled by a mere handful of organisations. Transit – how data physically flows from one place to another through cables – is also becoming consolidated.
“With this great power comes great dependency. If AWS turned its servers off tomorrow, we’d lose access to 5% of the internet (notably including Netflix!). Whilst such services provide great benefit to the web, we should be mindful of the power they wield.”