Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, proposed a global system of technology nearly 30 years ago that would change history: the world wide web. On Sunday it marked the 28th anniversary of that proposal, the so-called “birthday” of the internet. But instead of celebration, Berners-Lee decided to speak out on the three trends that have him “increasingly worried” about the fate of the internet.
As Berners-Lee points out, personal data has become a currency on the internet, with major tech companies like Facebook and Google tracking the activities of people in order to sell targeted advertisements. Particularly, Berners-Lee criticized the terms and conditions agreements many websites use in exchange for allowing users to access the sites. These agreements often allow the sites to track and sell personal data, but it is commonly accepted that most users never read those agreements and simply consent as quickly as possible.
Less than 18 percent of internet users claim to always read the terms and conditions agreement, but even that self-reported number may be too high, according to AdWeek. One social experiment found that 98 percent of people essentially signed a terms and condition agreement that included a stipulation that the users would give up their first-born children, per NPR.
While Berners-Lee mostly confronted using the term that has become ubiquitous since the U.S. presidential campaign, he criticized how easy it has become for “misinformation” to spread across the web. Particularly, he pointed to the fact that most news is spread through just a few search engines and websites, which are designed to indulge “our biases.”
According to the Pew Research Center, social media has become one of the primary sources of news for American adults. In particular, 44 percent of Americans get news on Facebook, which has been disapproved by some for its perceived influence on the presidential election.
Berners-Lee asserted, Related to fake news, the rise of personalized political advertisements has allowed “a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups”. Referring another Guardian article, Berners-Lee also said that marketing companies and campaigns 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 period of the 2016 election.
As Forbes reports, the practice of sharply customizing advertising to fit small groups of voters, called “microtargeting,” has only recently become a political tool in the past few election cycles after being mostly leveraged by retailers.