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Author: Ross Butler
Written on: 12 March 2018
Last updated: 15 March 2018


Regulation, internet
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The World Wide Web: British utopia or global nightmare

Photo credit: Paul Clarke

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide web, has hit out at the dominance of global internet giants

in a blog post marking the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday.

Rather than the decentralised, transparent, information ‘super highway’ once envisaged, the internet has become dominated by a few powerful platforms, he writes.

“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.”

These companies are able to acquire rivals and set up barriers to entry. Combined with the advantage afforded them by user data, Berners-Lee predicts the next 20 years to be ‘far less innovative than the last.”

He goes on to say that such is the power of internet giants, that it is possible for them to ‘weaponise the web at scale’ referring to fake news, election trolling and hijacking, and data theft.

But Berners-Lee says these problems are just bugs that have been created by people and can be fixed by people. He does not stipulate just how to go about rebuilding 'a web we all want’.

His concerns join a growing chorus of concern from policymakers through to media owners, such as the chairman of ITV Sir Peter Bazalgette who recently claimed that online giants posed a danger to civil society, and that they care more about algorithms than ethics.

Europe’s response has, so far, been regulatory: in the form of the General Data Protection Rules, which take effect in the UK this month. This is the most muscular and far-reaching regulatory response to protection of citizen’s data online.

Whether regulation can ever match commercial might online remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Britain has been toying with proposals to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.

Some observations from World Class Britain’s perspective.

  1. The World Wide Web was, in the time-honoured way, invented by a Briton and commercialised in the US. There are no UK-based internet giants.
  2. Similarly time-honoured is the process of industry disruption / the emergence of a few powerful players / supervision and anti-trust rules. Can Britain legislate its way back to online utopia?
  3. That’s tough because of the distributed nature of the internet. For top-down rules to be effective, they must be not just international but global.
  4. The EU’s GDPR is a good start on the data but involves a huge compliance burden not just for Google but SMEs and infant schools. The internet was supposed to be free, but it seems to be costing everyone else a small fortune.
  5. Meanwhile Britain’s internet safety proposals so far amount to little more than a press release.
  6. Berners-Lee is right: a man-made problem will have a man-made solution. With its internationally respected rule of law, combined with its technical prowess, Britain can and should play an active role in ushering in a new and better internet age.


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