David Behrens: The internet is broken and the invention of Sir Tim Berners-Lee can no longer be left to market forces

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee
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SIR Tim Berners-Lee has this much in common with David Cameron: he let the genie out of the bottle and found he could not get it back in. Unlike the former Prime Minister, he hasn’t stopped trying.

As Westminster collapsed under the weight of its own rhetoric and Theresa May crawled from beneath the wreckage, Sir Tim was pitching up on the moral high ground.

Library picture

Library picture

It was exactly 30 years since he had sent a memo to his boss outlining his idea for a world wide web – the one 
that has enmeshed every one of us since. He acted out of altruism, not greed, and is thus not a billionaire, though I daresay he isn’t short of a few bob.

His motive was unchanged as he proposed a new way to feed the monster he had created. Left to regulate itself, he rued, even the most noble construct would be reduced to the basest level of society. It was up to both governments and the industry to correct these tendencies, before it was too late.

In the current climate, someone who expects a government as paralysed as ours to so much as open the lid of a laptop is the very definition of an optimist. But Sir Tim is right – the internet is as broken as Brexit, and can be left to market forces no longer.

There are three fracture lines running right through it, he observed. The first is hacking by malicious, often state-sponsored, forces; second, the viral spread of misinformation; and third the perverse commercial models which reward companies who churn out air-headed clickbait with titles like “housewives can’t believe this brilliant new way to clean pans”.

A fourth failing, which he didn’t mention, is the information divide that prevents many of those in rural parts of Yorkshire and elsewhere from seeing any of it at all, at anything like a reasonable speed.

However, putting all this right is made more difficult by the principle he laid down for his invention, which is of open access for all: anyone can publish anything, because no one is in charge.

These are not unlike the foundations of democracy, and they doesn’t seem to be holding up too well, either. If only Sir Tim had compared notes with Mr Cameron four years ago, before the web fanned the flames of lies on both sides of the referendum debate and spread them like wildfire.

The internet is too deeply entrenched to be fundamentally rebuilt. The best we can reasonably expect is for someone to come along and start patching it up – and in Britain, that might have to be Jeremy Wright, the Culture and Digital Secretary.

He declared on Tuesday that the era of self-regulation was coming to an end and that online platforms would have to do more to keep their users safe. He had spent the previous couple of hours talking to victims of cyberbullying, revenge porn and hate speech – a salutary experience, I should imagine.

Some of the platforms to which he refers are the obvious ones: Facebook and Twitter particularly are the sewer of the internet, and the government-neutral indemnity they have enjoyed as international players cannot be allowed to continue.

But there is other traffic on the information highway that Westminster could regulate more easily – although ease, as we know, is relative there. These are the domestic telecoms companies that deliver the internet to our homes and businesses – and while they are not necessarily guilty of originating the toxic content that is eating away at the edges of society, they could be made responsible for preventing its spread.

There is a precedent for this: the music and film industries have brought the full force of copyright law down on broadband companies who fail to block their customers from accessing pirated content.

Harmful material that offends individuals rather than corporations could be caught in a similar net, but it will fall to politicians to cast it.

At the heart of Sir Tim’s new manifesto for the web – and let’s hope it’s the only manifesto we will have to read this year – was that access to it should be guaranteed as a human right. That would certainly be welcomed in rural Yorkshire, but there is also a basic right to be protected from its worst excesses – a backstop, you might say. That shouldn’t be too much to ask of parliament, should it?