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Tim Berners-Lee hits out at big tech companies

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee
Philippe Desmazes | AFP | Getty Images
British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee

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Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has attacked Facebook, Google and Twitter for promoting misinformation and "questionable" political advertising while exploiting people's personal data, in a stinging rebuke to the world's biggest internet companies.

The British computer scientist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is a pioneer of the internet and has long advocated for better technical standards and access to the web as a basic human right.

In an interview with the Financial Times, he said a new legal or regulatory framework may help to limit the power of big tech companies, which had become overly-dominant and unaccountable to ordinary users.

For example, Sir Tim suggested, rules could force social media companies to give users more control over their own data. "The number of ways that things can go wrong on the internet has been multiplying," he said. "The timing is right for a bit of a backlash led by people in Europe."

Sir Tim has frequently advocated for better standards on the internet but said his concerns have grown because of an increase in information and personal data controlled and owned by a small number of companies. He suggested that tech companies test new advertising models where users can penalise bad adverts or pay a fixed fee instead of allowing their data to be monetised through ads.

"Certainly we could imagine that in a better world . . . you would have a choice of search engine and a choice of social network to join," he said. "In a better world you'd have complete control over your information anyway."

Sir Tim published an open letter on Monday to mark the 29th anniversary of his proposal that became the world wide web. In it, he calls on policymakers and businesses to improve access to the internet through community networks and public WiFi initiatives, and to boost skills training for women.

"The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today," the letter says. "What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.

This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared."

Facebook, Google and Twitter have been at the centre of a massive storm about their dominant role in public discourse after it was revealed last summer that Russian entities had used their platforms to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.

The companies have been forced to hire staff and develop technology to improve online moderation after a string of controversies involving fake news, terrorist propaganda and inappropriate videos of children.

EU rules that come into effect in May mean the companies could face the possibility of a one-hour time limit for removing terrorist-related material as well as tough new data privacy rules that come with fines of up to 4 per cent of global turnover, or €20m, whichever is higher.

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