Tim Berners-Lee: We must tackle fake news for the benefit of all of humanity

Tim Berners-Lee pictured at the Cannes Lions festival in 2015
Francois G. Durand | Getty Images

Worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has called on online giants including Google and Facebook to tackle the spread of fake news online, in an open message published to mark the web's 28th birthday.

"Over the past 12 months, I've become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity," he wrote on the World Wide Web Foundation's site Sunday.

Berners-Lee singled out fake news as one of the concerns, and said: "Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us.

Tim Berners-Lee pictured at the Cannes Lions festival in 2015
Francois G. Durand | Getty Images

"And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we'll click on – meaning that misinformation, or 'fake news', which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire."

He called for Facebook and Google to continue to combat the problem – Facebook announced tools to tackle fake news in December 2016 and updated Trending in February 2017, while Google banned 200 publishers from its ad network in January 2017 – and urged against the "creation of any central bodies to decide what is 'true' or not."

The personal information exchange

Berners-Lee also lamented people's loss of control over personal data. Free access to some websites comes in exchange for information that people do not mind handing over, he wrote.

"But, we're missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realize if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it."

Berners-Lee, who is a founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation and president of the Open Data Institute, criticized governments for monitoring what people do online.

"It creates 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 wrote.

Political advertising is too targeted

Berners-Lee's third point relates to how online political advertising can potentially mislead voters.

"There are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US 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 wrote.

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

The World Wide Web Foundation is to work on these issues over the next five years, Berners-Lee added. "It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone."

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