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Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent 'weaponised' web

TBL is rightfully indignant and concerned about the fact that “what was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.” The Web, according to Berners-Lee, is at great risk of degenerating into a few big versions of Compuserve or AOL sucking up most of the bandwidth of the Internet, and most of the attention of its inhabitants. In an open letter, he outlines the dangers of putting so much power into hands that either see it as a burden, or who actively exploit it for evil.

I really really hate Facebook more than most, because it aggressively seeks to destroy all that is good about the Web, and it is ruthlessly efficient at doing so, regardless of the human costs. Yes, let's kill that in any way that we can, because it is actually and actively evil, and shows no sign of getting any nicer. I am somewhat less concerned that Google gets 87% of all online searches (notwithstanding the very real dangers of a single set of algorithms shaping what we find), because most of Google's goals are well aligned with those of the Web. The more openly people share and link, the better it gets, and the more money Google makes. It is very much in Google's interest to support an open, highly distributed, highly connected Web, and the company is as keen as everyone else to avoid the dangers of falsehoods, bias, and the spread of hatred (which are among the very things that Facebook feeds upon), and, thanks to its strong market position and careful hiring practices, it is more capable of doing so than pretty much anyone else. Google rightly hates Facebook (and others of its ilk) not just because it is a competitor, but because it removes things from the open Web, probably spreads lies more easily than truths, and so reduces Google's value.

I am somewhat bothered that the top 100 sites (according to WIkipedia, based on Alexa and SimilarWeb results) probably get far more traffic than the next few thousand put together, and that the long tail pretty much flattens to approximately zero after that. However, that's an inevitable consequence of the design of the Web (it's a scale-free network subject to power laws), and 'approximately zero' may actually translate to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, so it's not quite the skewed mess that it seems. It is, as TBL observes, very disturbing that big companies with big pockets purchase potential competitors and stifle innovation, and I agree that (like all monopolies) they should be regulated, but there's no way they are ever going to get everything or everyone, at least without the help of politicians and evil legislation, because it's a really long tail. 

It is also very interesting that even the top 10 - according to just about all the systems that measure such things - includes the unequivocally admirable and open Wikipedia itself, and also Reddit which, though now straying from its fully open model, remains excellently social and open. In different ways, both give more than they take.

It is also worth noting that there are many different ways to calculate rank. (based on the Mozscape web index of 31 Billion domains and 165 Billion pages) has a very different view of things, for instance, in which Facebook doesn't even make it to the domains listing, and is way below Wordpress and several others in the popular pages list, which is a direct result of it being a closed and greedy system. Quantcast's perspective is somewhat different again, albeit only focused on US sites which are a small but significant portion of the whole.

Most significantly, and to reiterate the point because it is worth making, the long tail is very long indeed. Regardless of the dangers of a handful of gigantic platforms casting their ugly shadows over the landscape, I am extremely heartened by the fact that, now, over 30% of all websites run on Wordpress, which is both open source and very close to the distributed ideal that TBL espouses, allowing individuals and small communities to stake their claims, make a space, and link (profusely) with one another, without lock-in, central control, or inhibition of any kind. That 30% puts any one of the big monoliths, including Facebook, very far into the shade. And, though Wordpress's nearest competitor (Joomla, also open source) accounts for a 'mere' 3% of all websites, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar systems, not to mention a huge number of pages (50% of the total, according to W3Techs) that people still roll for themselves.

Yes, the greedy monoliths are extremely dangerous and should, where possible, be avoided, and it is certainly worth looking into ways of regulating their activities, nationally and internationally, as many governments are already doing and should continue to do so. We must ever be vigilant. But the Web continues to grow, and to diversify regardless of their pernicious influence because it is far bigger than all of them put together.


  • Thank you for sharing the article, Jon.

    I agree on your points on Facebook.  Though I still use Facebook, it is more of a observational standpoint now.  It is interesting to see the developments of news and opinions through the lens of Facebook.  For example, I find it interesting how certain population of my friends on Facebook have specific viewpoints that strongly go against other segments of my friends (i.e. left vs. right wing political viewpoints).  There doesn't seem to be any middle ground for the most part; you are either on one side or the other.  Moderates are drowned out.  Its the formation of social media bubbles.

    I find Reddit running into this issue now too, as people seem to only congregate into their favourite subreddits.  Subreddits are like specific factions now in a sense, as sometimes these subreddits 'brigade' other subreddits.  There is more polarization, too.

    Interesting times we are in.



    Viet Nguyen March 14, 2018 - 1:19am

  • One thing that bothers me a bit about TBL's stance is that such clustering will occur no matter how open and distributed the network - it's built into the very nature of the web that he designed. Subreddits are functionally equivalent to websites or, for that matter, newsgroups of old in that regard. When we get to choose what we see and who we interact with, echo chambers are inevitable. Nothing new here apart from scale and the length of the long tail.

    Filter bubbles, on the other hand, are far from inevitable. Where I think he is right to be worried is that the perspective you see on Facebook and, in principle, might see via Google, depending on the degree of 'personalization' (I greatly dislike use of the term to mean something done to somebody rather than by somebody) you let it get away with, is determined not by individuals but by secret algorithms. This means that, especially in the case of Facebook (that knows and ruthlessly exploits the value of polarization in driving engagement) your view of what your 'friends' are saying is not necessarily determined by the natural spread of opinion among them but by the system's deliberate manipulation of what you see which, thanks to FB's largely repulsive algorithms, represents a tiny fraction of the whole.

    One part of the answer might lie in making those algorithms scrutable. This opens up a can of worms inasmuch as it makes it easier for evil-doers to exploit them but, much as open source can be more secure than closed source because people can spot and fix the bugs (only works when there is much ongoing active development), it would certainly encourage the perpetrators to tread more carefully. Another part lies in making them not just scrutable but personalizable (in the true sense of the word). Unfortunately, as Judy Kay (and I, for that matter, in a slightly different way) found a decade or two ago, the chances of people even understanding the effects of changes to weightings, let alone actually applying them, are slim. Most will simply accept defaults. The more you force it on them, the more sophisticated the filtering you enable, the less usable (and used) the system will be. There is almost certainly at least a partial answer to this problem - it's a design problem that can in principle be solved by a sufficiently inventive technology  - but I've yet to find it.

    Another part of the solution - which speaks more to echo chambers than filter bubbles - lies in culture and literacy. It is natural to be drawn to others that share interests or other commonalities with you, and for those that are not part of your sets to be considered as other, with all the bad things that entails. Escaping these traps means making an active decision to do so. If we, as individuals, put greater value on diversity - for instance, we actively seek things that conflict with our views, that are not in our comfort zones, that are not among our self-decided interests, that are randomly chosen, or serendipitous - and try to understand them, then there's a much better chance that the world will become a better place. One of the big reasons that Canada is a better place to live than most others in the world is that, as a culture, we celebrate and embrace such diversity. The same can and should be true of our online lives.

    Jon Dron March 14, 2018 - 1:00pm

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