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Berners-Lee: dominant platforms creating barriers for competitors

by on 12th March 2018

On the 29th anniversary of the WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, argues that the “dominant platforms” of today’s WWW “are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.”

In an open letter on the World Wide Web Foundation’s website, Berners-Lee also states “the fact power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale.”

He goes on to discuss how the problem affects innovation and competition, noting “They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.”

He also highlights examples of recent developments he deems are particularly problematic, including fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoking “social tensions,” external actors interfering in elections and criminals stealing personal data.

Berners-Lee questions the wisdom of public officials looking to tech companies for what he deems to be the problem, highlighting the fact that public officials are placing the “burden” on tech companies “that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good.”

His suggested fix is a “legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives.”

Berners-Lee’s comments comes in the midst of intense scrutiny of big tech. Over the last year, supranational organizations and national governments have sought to quell its influence, particularly in relation to news, illegal content and data protection.

In response, Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has made numerous changes to the manner news content is publicized on its platform, including trialing options to segment news from personal content and focusing more on local news than national news.

A number of organizations, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, have also appeared before public committees to present evidence on alleged foreign interference in elections and referendums.

In his open letter Berners-Lee also draws attention to global disparities in internet access. He argues that despite half the world now being online, internet access is still prohibitively expensive for people in developing countries.

Citing A4AI’s report on the cost of mobile data, he goes on to state “in some countries, the cost of 1GB of mobile broadband remains over 20% of average monthly income.”

In a move which was fiercely criticized by advocates of net neutrality, Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have introduced zero-rating services in recent years, which provide free access to their platforms for people in developing countries.

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