Pandora’s box


It is 30 years ago this week that the World Wide Web came into being. And the man who created it is not impressed with how it has turned out.

The British scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web envisaged that his new, intuitive method for people to share views and information would be an absolute force for good. He has been telling interviewers that for the first 15 years, this was largely the case. However, now he is warning that the web is on a ”downward plunge into a dysfunctional future”.

His key concerns are the manipulation of data such as that uncovered about Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of highly personal information gleaned from millions of Facebook users, massive data breaches and malign hacking. He also expresses his horror at the sheer nastiness of people using social media and the rising tide of fake news.

Berners-Lee is a clearly very clever man but not so clever that he was able to anticipate that his creation would empower terrorists, fraudsters, sickos and unauthorized data collection on a massive commercial scale. Whatever the opportunities for good that he expected, he failed to see there was a dark and threatening obverse side to the web coin.

Put bluntly, he failed to appreciate that the World Wide Web would actually reflect and even magnify the nastiness and indeed sheer evil that is the sad side of society worldwide. The web offered undreamt-of opportunities for wrongdoing that had once needed slower, less efficient and altogether more cumbersome methods.

Berners-Lee is now pressing for international action to safeguard his original principles of an open web. Unfortunately, he is baying to the wind. The web has opened a Pandora’s box upon which it is probably impossible to put back the lid.

To be fair to Berners-Lee, the worst problems with his creation emerged after 2003 with the creation of Facebook and its other social media rivals. And these in turn were given an extraordinary impetus by the arrival of the smartphone, enabling people to view and update their contacts and profiles wherever they were. While government cyber-spies have focused on targeting the state and commercial systems of rival countries, social media has been the go-to area for everyone, including the hackers, fraudsters and fake news merchants.

Indeed, the very success of the web has been its greatest weakness. In a slower world of telegrams and written letters, of celluloid film and the printed word, it needed time to find information. Generally, facts could be placed in their all-important context, by reference to other printed documents. By today’s measure, it was a slow process.

Berners-Lee seems never to have grasped that by enabling access to a tidal wave of information, whether correct, dubious or downright wrong, at the mere click of a search engine button, he was encouraging users to avoid the sort of more detailed research that would give real value and meaning to the answers that were thrown up. His high-minded ambition to spread reliable data and sensible opinion has been usurped by cynical manipulators and dedicated criminals, who are abusing the immense power the web presented to them. Had Berners-Lee been as good an observer of human nature as he is a scientist, he should not have been surprised by any of this.