Sir Tim Berners-Lee asks if Twitter is 'actually a net good for the planet?'

LONDON — Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, on Monday called out Twitter as an example of why many people are “re-thinking” how to regulate the internet.

At the Innovate Finance Global Summit in London on Monday, Sir Tim was asked to expand on a recent letter he wrote detailing his three biggest fears for the future of the web:

  • Losing control of personal data;
  • Unregulated political advertising;
  • And the spread of fake news.

Sir Tim said he and his co-creators of the web began with “utopian” hopes that it could bring the world closer together and breakdown borders.

He said on Monday: “The assumption was if we gave humanity an open space to play with, good things would happen,” referring to the creation of the world wide web.

“Last year, a lot of people did a re-think.”

Sir Tim seemed to imply that the EU referendum and US presidential elections changed his position. Both were characterised by the spread of negative, often fake, stories on networks like Facebook and Twitter.

He said: “Look at Twitter, is this actually a net good for the planet?”

Twitter has long grappled unsuccessfully with the question of what to do about “trolls” on its network. The company’s problem with abusive content was one of the things that stopped Salesforce buying the platform last year.

Sir Tim said that “nasty ideas” appear to spread faster on the social network that positive messages, saying: “We have to think about the effect.” He added that he thought both Facebook and Twitter themselves were reassessing how to regulate their platforms.

Sir Tim moved from discussing Twitter to talking about political advertising on social networks more generally. He said he is worried by the fact that targeted advertising on social networks allows politicians to advertise one thing to one person while saying the complete opposite to someone else, effectively just telling people what they want to hear in order to win power.

Sir Tim said: “Should we introduce a rule that if you’re a political organisation, you may not target?”

“We need to re-think how we’ve built society on top of this web thing,” he concluded.

Computer scientists Sir Tim submitted a proposal to CERN for what would become the world wide web on March 12, 1989, and is widely seen as its creator. He is now the founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation.

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