The best foundation for the web: open debate

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tim Berners-Lee’s new group aims for a ‘free and open’ web, but the idea of ‘rating’ content would close down discussion.

Last week saw the launch in Washington DC of the World Wide Web Foundation, a new organisation with the aim of maintaining the web as an open and beneficial tool for all. On the face of it, its aims should be deserving of our support. But the Foundation should steer clear of a prescriptive outlook towards web content.

Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the World Wide Web, chose to launch the foundation at the headquarters of the John S and James L Knight Foundation, an institution that awards grants to help transform communities and journalism. In his inaugural speech about the Foundation, Berners-Lee said its aims are ‘to advance One Web that is free and open, to expand the web’s capability and robustness, and to extend the web’s benefits to all people on the planet’ (1). On the same evening, the Knight Foundation announced its donation of $5million worth of seed funding, giving the Foundation a solid financial base.

One commendable thing about Berners-Lee is his unswerving insistence that the web should remain human-centred and adhere to universal values. To argue such things is rare in today’s myopic culture that no longer believes in technology and innovation. Not many would argue for the internal combustion engine, television or the aeroplane in such human-centred terms. Instead, the common sentiment seems to be that any benefits are forgotten amongst the pessimistic doom and gloom of how they blight the world.

The Foundation is an important initiative with good provenance. Apart from its seed funding, it is well supported by two long-standing organisations that Berners-Lee himself has been instrumental in setting up: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) that promotes wider research around web-related issues.

The Foundation’s remit will focus on problems such as privacy, online security and the continuing development of more technology-based open standards. Its Web Society Program will focus on how people engage with technology including investigating the impact of the web in socially or economically disadvantaged areas. Put together, Berners-Lee’s aims for the foundation are simple: to ‘connect humanity’.

The disappointment is that the Foundation cannot simply aim to create an environment that makes more innovation happen. Instead it has insisted on issuing authoritarian-sounding decrees over the web’s lifeblood: its content. Whether Berners-Lee or anyone else likes it or not, the web’s content, when left alone and uncensored, is what makes it so compelling and useful. We cannot have it in any other way. In much the same way, his views of how the Foundation’s work should be judged sound like high-falutin’ hyperbole. They are a long way from giving the world the tools we need to get things done and are way beyond the mere application of the web’s technology: ‘Our success will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children. Whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases. Whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable healthcare information from commercial chaff. Whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy, inform the electorate, and promote accountable debate.’ (2)

Here the Foundation no longer sounds as ‘open’ as when it promotes open technology standards elsewhere. Rather, when speaking in ‘policy mode’, it sounds more like an über-authority wanting to intervene in every nook and cranny, stamping its mark, judging everything it finds as either good or unsatisfactory. The fact that the web helps many people to communicate with one another autonomously gets lost in all of this. Instead we get proposals to label content as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

In an interview with the BBC, Berners-Lee focused on this, declaring that more must be done to help decide on whether something found on the web is trustworthy or not. His point was to insist on some kind of labelling to identify wholesome content and those publishers who can be regarded as trustworthy sources. ‘I’m not a fan of giving a website a simple number like an IQ rating because, like people, they can vary in all kinds of different ways’, he said. ‘So I’d be interested in different organisations labelling websites in different ways.’ (3)

What has evidently provided the focus here has been a steady stream of rumours and stories emanating online that are heralded as fact - and spread accordingly. Talking to the BBC, Berners-Lee cited one such recent example: the claim that when the CERN Large Hadron Collider was finally switched on, it would bring about the end of the world by creating a black hole (4). Thankfully it didn’t: the rumour mongers spreading that nonsense got it wrong.

But in making these remarks, Berners-Lee and his foundation have got it wrong. Protecting us from such untrustworthy guff will only inflate the importance of the rumours themselves, even downplaying our ability to deal with them for what they are: rubbish. Website owners could take matters into their own hands (with or without the Foundation’s blessing) and rate their own content as trustworthy and credible. But pitting one source against another will leave none of us any wiser. After all, even the government, often seen as the ultimate arbiter of trustworthiness, gets it wrong. Time and again, they have made false claims, spread rumours and wrongly interpreted the facts. No one has a monopoly on insight - the best protection is open and free debate.

A truly human-centred approach - one that Berners-Lee should aspire to - must do everything to promote an engaged public space that means ideas are dealt with on their own terms. While this will do little to stem the flow of rumours, it will mean more ideas are questioned, criticised and debated. That means we’re more likely to be able to sort truth from fiction on our own terms. Contrary to Berners-Lee, we need more exposure to competing arguments that pit one idea against another, not less. What we don’t need is yet another self-imposed authority shutting that debate down.

It’s no contradiction that one of the best ways to try all of this out is actually on the web. It is a shame that the web’s inventor can longer see this potential.