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Any way you look at it, the World Wide Web is an incredible achievement. The way that it effortlessly allows billions of Internet users from around the world to connect and accomplish things they never could have before makes it easily one of the most impressive inventions of the past century. In fact, it’s so amazing that it seems churlish to criticize it—unless you happen to be the guy who invented it in the first place, of course.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee (who told me once that anyone who calls him “Sir” in a social setting has to buy a round of drinks) did exactly that during a recent symposium on the future of the web called the Decentralized Web Summit, which convened in an old church in San Francisco by longtime Internet activist Brewster Kahle.
The downside of the way the web has developed since it was created in 1989, Berners-Lee said, is that the same technology that allows for incredible examples of connectivity also supports “spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content [and] taking you to the wrong websites,” he said, which “completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”
Kahle told the group that CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed “we’ve inadvertently built the world’s largest surveillance network with the web.” Countries like China can “make it impossible for people there to read things, and just a few big service providers are the de facto organizers of your experience,” he said. “We have the ability to change all that.”
Just how things might change isn’t clear, unfortunately. Berners-Lee and Kahle, among others, are interested in the potential of blockchain technology—the software that underlies bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies—as a way of making it easier for creators and content owners to get paid and to keep the Internet from relying entirely on advertising as a revenue source. The latter is responsible for some of the web’s worst flaws, Berners-Lee said.
“Ad revenue is the only model for too many people,” the web’s creator said. “People assume today’s consumer has to make a deal with a marketing machine to get stuff for ‘free,’ even if they’re horrified by what happens with their data.” But the biggest problem is a social one, he said. “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging.
“We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”