​Web inventor wants Facebook, Google to lead the fight against 'fake news'

Tim Berners-Lee has suggested empowering the internet giants do more to combat the abundance of 'fake news' on their respective platforms.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Tim Berners-Lee, Web Foundation founder and the inventor of the world wide web, has published his take on what needs to be done to ensure the future of the web fulfils his vision of an equalising platform that benefits all of humanity, including tackling fake news, political advertisement, and data sovereignty.

Marking 28 years since Berners-Lee submitted his original proposal for the world wide web, the now-53 year-old explained in a blog post that over the past 12 months, he has become increasingly worried about three new trends he said need to be tackled for the web to fulfil its "true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity", starting with combating fake news.

"It's too easy for misinformation to spread on the web," he wrote.

As many people find news and information on the internet through a handful of social media sites and search engines that are often financially compensated for "clicks", Berners-Lee explained that consumers are often shown particular "news" items based on algorithms which learn from personal data that is constantly harvested. The end result is often being shown misinformation, or fake news.

"Through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain," he explained.

Berners-Lee wants to empower "data gatekeepers" such as Google and Facebook to combat the problem, while also avoiding the creation of any central bodies that mandate what is "true" or not.

"We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary," he said. "We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed."

In November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg detailed plans to rid fake news stories from his platform, noting the social media giant was working on stronger detection to classify misinformation, easier reporting for users to catch misinformation faster, third-party fact checking, flagging more stories, disrupting the fake news economy, and improving the related articles quality.

"The bottom line is: We take misinformation seriously," Zuckerberg said. "Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We've been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We've made significant progress, but there is more work to be done."

Similarly, Google revealed in January that it axed 1.7 billion bad ads in 2016, just over double the 780 million it took down in 2015, for violating its various policies including rules on fake content.

In November, Google introduced a new AdSense policy for publishers to prevent fake news sites from generating ad revenue on its platform. Since launching the policy, Google said it has permanently banned nearly 200 AdSense publishers for violating its new rules against "misrepresentative content".

"From November to December 2016, we reviewed 550 sites that were suspected of misrepresenting content to users, including impersonating news organisations. We took action against 340 of them for violating our policies, both misrepresentation and other offenses, and nearly 200 publishers were kicked out of our network permanently," Google said.

Similarly, Berners-Lee wants to close what he called the "internet blind spot" by way of regulating political campaigning, and noted that like fake news, political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.

"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," he wrote.

Questioning the democracy of targeted campaigns, Berners-Lee highlighted that during the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook.

The last issue Berners-Lee is concerned with also stems from data collection.

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data, Berners-Lee explained. However, he believes this has begun to hinder the idea of free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality, or religion, as the data collected on one platform is often shared with other companies and governments, globally.

"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 said.

Berners-Lee proposes the idea of personal "data pods" to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people.

"I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries," Berners-Lee said. "In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open."

Editorial standards