There was a time in 1990 when I heard about a thing called ‘the internet’. It wasn’t until 1992 that I discovered a company that gave me dialup access, text only for me at that time, to a unix prompt where I could run FTP and Gopher and Archie to explore the internet of university and science institute hosted servers. It wasn’t much after that that I tried the first web browser, Mosaic, and discovered the web.

The web was everything I imagined it would be. A place to talk about ideas and publish my thoughts. I structured my studies and built my career around it. No longer would human thought and imagination be restricted to news and book publishers, who, in my young adult mind had nefarious and corporate ideals that were at odds with my own view of the world. The people could rise up — like Prometheus, we would take the fire for ourselves and use it as we see fit. Digital technologies are often about this: democratising resources, whether it’s speech, data, money, transport, work or even dating. Digital technologies allow us to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions without a facilitator setting the rules usually to their own benefit in the case of news publishers, banks, dating agencies and taxi companies (in my idealistic view of the 1990s).  

Hobbyists posting pictures of their cats and making lists of the movies they’d seen grew to mammoth businesses, and the businesses that helped us access and manage this technology grew to be the largest companies the world has ever seen. A seemingly endless economic and information boom was created, human activity generating wealth and lolcats in an exponential manner. What went unchecked was the underbelly. I’d argue that the web, or really, the internet plus mobile technology, has delivered a level of social change that is unprecedented, some of which is overwhelmingly positive. But, without a facilitator to weed out toxic uses, much of the internet is overwhelmingly negative too. 

There was a time that I loved the web, but we’re going through a tough time. I hope we make it.

Robin Marshall

Head of Product

The growing sophistication in the use of technology has seen elections manipulated by state actors, surveillance of entire populations, private data sold en masse to the highest bidder and, most recently, publishing of the most depraved content, live footage of mothers, fathers and children being slaughtered by a despicable, hate-filled individual. This individual made a concerted effort to identify himself as a citizen of the web, using internet culture references from sites such as 4chan and reddit. These places seem to intentionally exist on the shared anger and hate of disenfranchised young men (in the case of 4chan) and seemingly endless and polarised debate, where individual channels openly censor those who don’t agree with the moderators who don’t seem to moderate, but instead concentrate the ideology demonstrated within their domain (in the case of reddit). We’ve seen and heard that this was an act of and for the web, to demand our attention and remind us of where this hatred grew.

There is now an ocean of information on the web, deep and wide. Even those people who have voracious appetites for it can’t possibly absorb the amount of content pouring out the web’s every orifice. In this sea of voices, those that shout the loudest will be heard. To shout loudly they must recruit social media, bots, viral content and, worst of all, shock tactics. As active consumers of information we seek out the content we identify with and, for some, this means a slow trudge towards extreme ideology.

The focussing of ideology and, in some cases, amplification of hate is not just a side-effect of the web. It’s been there since the beginning, built into its open core of choice. The freedom to publish, be it high quality independent journalism, illicit text files, or images of rabbits with objects placed on their heads, has been central to our digital revolution. The question now is how do we truly moderate — not discriminate, but actually moderate — the discussion online to allow quality debate? Is it possible to stop these poisonous voices shouting so loudly?

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, has spoken at length about his despair for the web. His project, Solid, attempts to provide a platform for authentication, authorisation and data ownership. This initiative is designed to help users of the web keep ownership of their private data, but I wonder if Solid (or some other initiative) could go a long way to allowing people to own their own data and also to own what they say. I’m beginning to think the answer lies only in regulation. Much as we have anti-money laundering laws to ensure financial transactions occur between identified individuals, perhaps we need also to identify informational exchanges. In other words, if you’re going to say something awful, be prepared to suffer the consequences instead of being a keyboard warrior hiding in your bedroom. Of course, how we do this while still allowing whistleblowers to call out injustice is not a simple problem to solve.

I’m incredibly grateful I live in a country where we are mature enough to say, “You know what? We can’t have semi-automatic weapons if the people that want to own them want to use them in this way”. I hope we are also able to regulate the web in such a way as to allow the best of humanity to flourish, while forcing the small minority to be accountable for their wrongdoings and remove their power to shout so loudly. It’s easy to focus on the physical weapons, but the digital ones are harder to police fairly.

As Tim Berners-Lee said in his recent open letter, it’s time to create the web that we want. To do this we need to talk about what the rules are. I wouldn’t have always said this, but I think it’s time to change the way we use the web with both technology and legislation. Be it blockchain or cryptographic signing to verify publishers rather than publishing content anonymously, or ways to hide our private data while still engaging with our friends online, there are a world of possibilities with technology. This is why I loved the web in the first place. However, any change is not going to succeed on it’s own: it’s not going to be adopted by Facebook and Google, they make too much profit from the status quo and aren’t ready to admit any responsibility for publishing hate, which generates so much advertising revenue. Government will need to step in with sensible legislation.

As Tim Berners-Lee has said:

You don’t have to have any coding skills. You just have to have a heart to decide enough is enough. Get out your Magic Marker and your signboard and your broomstick. And go out on the streets.

Tim Berners-Lee

Director, W3C