Web Inventor Berners-Lee Picks the Wrong Fights

People can do great work and still make terrible mistakes. Seminal 20th century thinker Martin Heidegger had a rare gift for grappling with ideas from both Eastern and Western schools, but will forever be tainted by his association with the Nazis. Noam Chomsky has given us a profound critique of how the Western media works, but was dead wrong to suggest “tales of Communist atrocities” by the Khmer Rouge were exaggerated to suit the American press. So whilst we should respect Tim Berners-Lee for his personal contribution to the development of the web, we must also entertain the possibility of his being badly misguided when picking fights over how the web is managed. His latest epistle sees him continuing a line of reasoning that he has long been committed to, contrary to all the objective data that should have changed his mind over the years. Put simply, he thinks the web would be better if it was subject to more control. Without being clear on this point, he means it should be more under the control of people who think like him. He is wrong, and his errors need to be tackled head-on instead of being repeated uncritically.

The web is under threat. Join us and fight for it.

That is the title of Berners-Lee’s latest provocation as published by the Web Foundation he founded. Talk of fighting is always guaranteed to stimulate interest. Is it unreasonable to ask that scientists might sometimes use less emotional language, and focus on presenting objective data, even if they think their message is important? After all, one of the problems with discourse on the web is that it is so divisive. Not everything needs to be settled on a battleground, even if starting a war is the easiest way to entice febrile web users to take an interest.

Today, the World Wide Web turns 29. This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online.

And therein lies the first absurdity in Berners-Lee’s argument. In what sense is the web under threat, when something that did not exist 30 years ago can now be used by half of the human race? We treat Siberian tigers and Japanese cranes as threatened because their numbers are few; they may become extinct if their numbers fall further. In contrast, a vast number of people use the web and their ranks grow all the time.

When I share this exciting news with people, I tend to get one of two concerned reactions:

  1. How do we get the other half of the world connected?
  2. Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?

The web reached half the world without much intervention from the plotters and schemers that now speak to Berners-Lee on a regular basis. Given that it spread so far without their help, what makes them think it will falter now? Do they have any data to support their beliefs?

As for whether the rest of the world wants the web that we have, surely that is for them to decide… and note how Berners-Lee assumes a clear division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ from the outset. People can put stuff on computers, which then serve the web, meaning a lack of choice can be solved by people offering more choices. Or is the point that ‘they’ should be denied some of the choices that we have? If so, who are ‘we’ to decide that?

The threats to the web today are real and many, including those that I described in my last letter — from misinformation and questionable political advertising to a loss of control over our personal data. But I remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.

Perhaps Berners-Lee is not aware of this, but ‘everyone’ includes people who are liars, and people who are politicians, though some would remark that the latter category is redundant because it is encompassed by the former. You cannot have a web for everyone without tolerating the so-called threat of some people using it for naughty purposes. The threats to today’s web are the same old threats faced by liberal societies for millennia: if speech is free and open then some people will say things that others would prefer left unsaid.

The divide between people who have internet access and those who do not is deepening existing inequalities — inequalities that pose a serious global threat. Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to be offline if you are female, poor, live in a rural area or a low-income country, or some combination of the above…

In 2016, the UN declared internet access a human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food. But until we make internet access affordable for all, billions will continue to be denied this basic right. The target has been set — the UN recently adopted the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s threshold for affordability: 1 GB of mobile data for less than 2% of average monthly income. The reality, however, is that we’re still a long way off from reaching this target — in some countries, the cost of 1GB of mobile broadband remains over 20% of average monthly income.

What will it take to actually achieve this goal? We must support policies and business models that expand access to the world’s poorest through public access solutions, such as community networks and public WiFi initiatives. We must invest in securing reliable access for women and girls, and empowering them through digital skills training.

There is nothing especially wrong with the hopes espoused by Berners-Lee, but why does he conflate reducing the cost of supplying a service (1 GB of mobile data for less than 2% of average income) with promoting interest amongst prospective users (digital skills training for women and girls)? I assume it is because Berners-Lee has nothing useful to say about reducing the cost for a gig of mobile data.

Re-read the proposals of Berners-Lee, and consider which of them might genuinely make a difference to the cost of internet access for billions of poor people. To the extent that they may make any difference, the proposals all involve increasing expenditure, with no clear vision of where the money comes from. That means his core position is that the web would spread more quickly if there was more voluntary redistribution of expenditure. But charity is not the reason why the web has reached billions of people already, including many of the world’s poor. The UN’s goal is stated in terms of mobile data precisely because huge investments were made on building mobile networks for purely commercial reasons. No charitable enterprise could have accomplished what commercial businesses have collectively accomplished in such a short space of time.

Berners-Lee invented the web whilst working on the problem of sharing information at CERN, the nuclear research facility. He is not an economist, nor a pioneer of mobile networks, and I question his expertise when it comes to understanding why so much money was invested in mobile networks in developing countries. It is a fact that developing countries often took to mobile networks more rapidly than Western countries, inverting the supposed order of who is ‘rich’ and who is ‘poor’. The tremendously rapid spread of mobile data has occurred because it is driven by lower costs for technology and sound business objectives, not because of charity.

If anything, I would be suspicious about Westerners imposing charity on developing countries, just at the moment we are seeing astonishing developments in the services being supplied using mobile technology in Africa and India. What does Berners-Lee have to tell Kenyans about using mobile money, when over 70 percent of their population use it already?

In a situation like this, I would be wary of Western do-gooders wrecking the amazing progress being made by imposing bad and irrelevant ideas because they want to use their wealth and power to interfere in markets they do not understand. The result of the misapplication of Western debates to developing countries has resulted in the Indian regulator siding against free mobile internet services that would violate the principles of net neutrality. These principles have become a dogmatic religion for Western zealots, many of whom are kids who are angry at their crappy ISP but have no idea about what developing countries need. Let us not encourage the spread of this religion. In this context, net neutrality means banning an effective cross-subsidy of services. But how do Westerners expect redistribution to work, if not by taking money from one place and using it to cheapen the cost of services provided elsewhere? In that sense, net neutrality is an almighty exercise in misdirection, with the point being that cross-subsidies are fine if approved or imposed by a government, but wrong if implemented by telcos and internet businesses without getting permission first!

Berners-Lee cites public WiFi initiatives as a way to increase access. I believe this illustrates his profound lack of relevant ideas. The roll-out of public WiFi has been an indolent bystander compared to the relentless march of commercial mobile networks. There have long been many advocates who said poor people in Western countries would benefit from public WiFi. But by any reasonable measure, public WiFi has been a crushing disappointment to anyone hoping they would greatly expand internet access for the poor. To begin with, WiFi proposals tend to focus on cities because they are not economically viable for rural areas, although Berners-Lee lists poor internet access for rural dwellers amongst his priorities. But even city WiFi projects have been limited in reach. When competing with the rapid improvements made commercial mobile and fixed line networks, many public WiFi projects in cities were rendered redundant before they even raised money to begin work. Those projects which are realized tend to have a range so limited that they are incidental to the needs of most poor.

Advocates of public WiFi have now somewhat morphed into proponents of so-called smart cities. They have moved up the value chain because they never made much progress with improving internet access for poor people, whilst better and cheaper mobile services have diminished the divide in Western countries. And even when governments intervene, they tend not to adopt the expensive projects beloved by the boondoggle WiFi enthusiasts. There is a reason that poor people in the USA benefit from a service colloquially known as Obama Phones but nobody ever talks about Obama WiFi. Obama Phones give subsidized mobile phone services to poor Americans, and in 2016 the program was expanded to cover broadband too. Whilst well-intentioned people have spent years yapping about public WiFi it has been the increasing availability of commercial services that make it easier for the government to help people by subsidizing access to networks built by private investors.

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.

This is flat wrong, and the data proves it. In 1996 there were 260,000 websites. Today there are 1.86 billion websites. Just look at the online counter maintained by Internet Live Stats and then observe that their graph shows how the number of websites keeps rising. Berners-Lee should know: he tweeted when the counter passed one billion!

Berners-Lee is guilty of substituting his feelings for hard data. Websites like Commsrisk are thriving, without any help from him. If most people choose to direct most of their attention to a few services like Pinterest or Amazon then that reflects the way people choose to consume and interact with each other, not the way the web works. That also explains why some of the biggest opponents of choice on the web are the major traditional publishing groups, who routinely assert that information on the web cannot be trusted, even as they push politicians to impose new taxes on the providers of internet content and services.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

Berners-Lee has a point, though I think it unlikely that any of the ‘top talent’ will cry about receiving good job offers. But again I must question his commitment to plurality. Most of the critics of new media are employed by old media. However, before the rise of new media the old media networks were even more dominant and offered even less choice. Has Berners-Lee forgotten there were just two television channels in the UK until he reached the age of 9? And that he was 27 years old when the fourth channel eventually launched?

Platforms like Facebook get routinely criticized for not doing enough to suppress voices that would never have been heard on old media, even whilst we endure the paradox that undemocratic nations launch broadcast networks to spread political messages that favor the sponsoring regime. If Berners-Lee has a proposal to break up LinkedIn and stop them manipulating the flow of information in the business world then he will have my support. But he is unlikely to put forward concrete proposals because then the top social media influencers would not be giddily retweeting what would also be a threat to their power too.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web 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.

All of these examples are counter-examples. If power was really concentrated amongst a few corporate execs then we would not need to talk about the power which is being wielded by legions of trolls, bots, and hackers.

I have no idea how Berners-Lee thinks he can de-weaponise the web by countering scale. Human beings want to connect with each other. They want computer programs that are interoperable. That will always drive us towards the risk of viruses, or spam, or any other mass effect that relies on scale. After all, the whole point of the web is that it works consistently at scale, so that any device with a web browser can access content from any web server.

We’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers. Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them — with each change they make affecting millions of people. The responsibility — and sometimes burden — of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.

A legal or regulatory framework may help? Berners-Lee asks us to fight but cannot even express confidence in the battle he has chosen. And where is this utopian legal or regulatory framework that will solve all these issues? Is it represented by a constitution that Berners-Lee has written?

If you want examples of powerful organizations that censor speech, amass personal data, surveil civilians and engage in extensive corruption then take a look around the various governments found in this world. But Berners-Lee believes that giving governments more power will enrich the world’s poor whilst ensuring ordinary citizens receive impartial information. This belief is a dangerous fantasy. Berners-Lee is imagining a government run by people like him, and not the governments that are run by the kinds of people who usually run governments. There are many governments who should have less power, not more, and anyone who blithely asserts that more government power must be a panacea is not addressing himself to the half of the world that currently lacks web access. It is not coincidental that the countries with the most corrupt governments also tend to suffer most poverty.

At this point it is also worth mentioning that the Web Foundation founded by Berners-Lee, and publishing this screed, has repeatedly received funding from Google. Perhaps that explains the lack of fighting language when calling for what may be considered a threat to the interests of the world’s most dominant internet business.

The future of the web isn’t just about those of us who are online today, but also those yet to connect. Today’s powerful digital economy calls for strong standards that balance the interests of both companies and online citizens.

It may come as a shock to people who work in academia, but people who work for companies are citizens too. Berners-Lee repeats a common trope about the divisions between companies and citizens even as his foundation relies on financial support from a company regularly busted by the European Union for its monopolistic business practices. But asking government to curb Google is not going to be that effective whilst politicians take Google’s money. And Berners-Lee is not the only academic dependent on Google’s largesse. For myself, I would prefer to hear about standards that have been subject to less influence from the biggest companies, and pay more heed to small businesses.

While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people — and can be fixed by people. Create a new set of incentives and changes in the code will follow. We can design a web that creates a constructive and supportive environment.

And what is striking is that Berners-Lee still has no suggestions about what we should do. What started as a demand for a fight ends up with the worst kind of solution imaginable: we should form a committee.

Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.

And which far-sighted individual, full of possible solutions, should be placed in charge of this committee? I think you know who Berners-Lee has in mind.

At the Web Foundation, we are ready to play our part in this mission and build the web we all want. Let’s work together to make it possible.

So the fight to save the web ends up with the formation of yet another committee of dullards who want to convert their self-importance into actual importance. If these lousy arguments by Berners-Lee illustrate what we can expect from the new committee to govern the world wide web, then the web is better left ungoverned.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.