Can you trust what you read online?

Opinion: Even Tim Berners-Lee is worried

Opinion: Even Tim Berners-Lee is worried

As the web matures, it is becoming less and less trusted as a source of information, says Simon Moores. Is this the direction we want it to go?

A week ago Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, told The Guardian newspaper that the internet could be corrupted by unseemly elements. He said: "There is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way."

Pointing to the appearance of a growing trust deficit in the online medium, Berners-Lee expressed worry about the growth of blogs because of the danger they present for containing inaccurate information.

I bet many of us would agree with him and perhaps Berners-Lee has unwittingly 'done a Jack Straw' by challenging the comfortable assumption that the web is moving in a positive rather than a negative direction.

The internet appears to be racing in a direction that is increasingly unaccountable and out of control rather than the other way around.

Next year's e-Crime Congress in London will focus on identity theft and the BBC reported this week that phishing has caused a rise in the amount of money lost to online banking fraud in the first half of this year. According to the Association of Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), the number of recorded incidents rose by a multiple of 16 over the previous year, with a 55 per cent increase in losses from online fraud against banks.

A study last month by online identity management company Garlik reported that the average UK citizen now represents a potential £85,000 target for identity thieves, and estimated that such fraud is now compromising more than 100,000 Britons per year. It predicts this figure will increase to 200,000 by 2010.

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If crime is now an ugly cancer on the face of the internet, the growing trust deficit between those communicating and doing business online is also causing the patient to walk with a distinct limp, as Berners-Lee has so astutely observed.

Outside of the established media, it's very difficult to give credence to what one reads online anymore, as the internet can be so very easily manipulated to present false or falsified information. The community-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia is a high profile victim of the web's own 'open skies' policy - one that struggles to maintain the truthfulness of its content.

Like Berners-Lee, I am also worried by blogs and I write several, having been an enthusiastic blogger since the very beginning as a personal adjunct to my own regular columns in places such as silicon.com.

In particular I'm concerned at how anonymity can be used as a kind of club in a novel form of asymmetric warfare, one which can see individuals defamed, almost to the point of libel with no available recourse.

I've discovered the existence of 'trolls' - obsessive individuals who will constantly monitor a blog for no other purpose than spiteful mischief-making. And I've found that writing a popular weblog that attempts an impartial exploration of local issues is not a good idea and should carry a health warning when people know who you are and resent one's opinions, lifestyle, career, political affiliation or all four.

Anonymity on the web may in principle sound good but with it one loses both verifiability and accountability for the content. This harks back to the axiom: 'On the internet, nobody knows if you're a dog.'

So let's say you disagree with what I'm writing here. In fact you disagree so much that you decide to use Blogger or some other resource to create an alternative blog that is packed with disinformation and defamatory at the same time. By month's end, it's likely that a 'Googlebot' has located your blog and your view of the world has, like magic, become read by many as a published form of gospel truth.

This is, I think, what Berners-Lee is saying. This argument takes us back to the well-known novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a further 2000 years to Plato's discourse with Socrates, with the words which inspired the book: "And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good - need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

A problem with the nature of truth is perhaps more immediate and dangerous in the modern world of the internet than it was in the Athens of Plato and Socrates.