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March 13, 2017

Tim Berners-Lee calls on Facebook, Google to fight fake news

Tim Berners-Lee is concerned that fake news is limiting the web's use as a tool for humanity.

By Tom Ball

The inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, has issued a damning report of the way in which misinformation is spread online, and has reached out to Google and Facebook to put a tighter grip on the ‘fake news’ issue.

Berners-Lee submitted his original proposal for the world wide web 28 years ago, but has since ‘become increasingly worried’ by the speed that misinformation can be spread. Furthmore, this information threatens to prevent the web from fulfilling its “true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.”

Broken into three areas, Berners-Lee explained the grounds for his concern. The sections include the loss of control of personal data, the ease with which misinformation can be spread, and the need to bring transparency to online political advertising.

Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of World Wide Web

He said in the first section of the post: “The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.”

He then went on to comment on the way that the user is faced with various pages and items based on their own personal information, leading to mass spreading of misinformation.

He said: “They choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting.” This outlook explains Berners-Lee’s intention to look to Facebook and Google as guardians against ‘fake news.”

“The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire.”

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In the third section, on a political note Berners-Lee said that, “in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor”. He continues by saying that there are suggestions that some political adverts are being used in unethical ways.

Berners-Lee said: “Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users.”

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