Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has called for large technology firms to be regulated to prevent the web from being “weaponised at scale”.
“In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data,” Berners-Lee wrote in an open letter marking the 29th anniversary of his invention.
These problems have proliferated because of the concentration of power in the hands of a few platforms – including #Facebook, #Google, and Twitter – which “control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared”.
“What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms,” said the 62-year-old British computer scientist.
These online gatekeepers can lock in their power by acquiring smaller rivals, buying up new innovations and hiring the industry’s top talent, making it harder for others to compete, he said.
Google now accounts for about 87% of online searches worldwide. Facebook has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users – more than 20 times more than MySpace at its peak. Together, the two companies (including their subsidiaries Instagram and YouTube) slurp up more than 60% of digital advertising spend worldwide.
Although the companies are aware of the problems and have made efforts to fix them – developing systems to tackle fake news, bots and influence operations – they have been built to “maximise profit more than maximise social good”.
“A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions,” he said.