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Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent 'weaponised' web (theguardian.com)
141 points by ilamont 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments



Regulation will be the natural consequence of the sector mostly being asleep on the wheel while the power of their platforms was turned against the values of a democratic society.

Facebook is the main culprit in this. It could be forgiven that their algorithms amplified humans’ natural instincts towards divisiveness. But not being on top of the political advertisement on their platform is gross negligence bordering on intent: simply requiring transparency of sponsorship of political ads, as well as the groups being targeted, would have gone a long way in softening the calls for regulation we now see.


Considering that Facebook specifically markets political marketing as a use-case for Facebook, including a neat little marketing site with a how-to guide[1], I think it's going to be difficult for Facebook to claim ignorance on this when regulators start knocking at their doors. Yes, they could say that their platform was being used outside of their intended use-case, but that they didn't even attempt the bare minimum to prevent abuse while actively seeking customers for its political influence machine is fairly damning.

[1] https://politics.fb.com/


How is that different from any other media platform? TV, radio, print, would all do the same thing. They clearly need more scrutiny on such ads, but otherwise it’s the same sales pitch as any other media company.


Would they? I don’t think they address the real problem here.

Simply using social media to campaign has never been the issue. There was never backlash against Obama for doing so. There’s precious little backlash against Sanders. The only real backlash has been against Trump, and aside from being Donald Trump, the only difference is that many of Trump’s social media supporters were secretly backed by the Russian government, and I don’t think transparency requirements would have stopped the Russian government.


It's a culture of apathy to everything except legal threat. Look up the beginnings of Google Adwords. The only thing they cared about initially was launching - forget everything until someone threatens you with a lawsuit.


When you ask for BigCo to remove conspiracy theories, what you are asking for is that a small unaccountable elite decides what the truth is and deletes everything else.

This model has been shown to work fine with newspapers and other massmedia, but that's because there are competitors to jump to.


And the barrier to building Fauxbook(tm) is?

There is probably FAR more opportunity to building a Facebook competitor than a newspaper competitor nowadays.


But who’s gonna use it? Not even Google can build a Facebook competitor and get people to use it.


> Not even Google

Social networking is just one entry in the long list of Google's failures, many of which were successfully executed by smaller companies:

* Chat. Google has tried like 4 or 5 different times to do chat and ultimately lost out to the likes of WhatsApp, Slack, Messenger and others.

* Location/business Reviews. Despite having Maps, google still has yet to really come close to unseating Yelp in this arena.

* Wearables. Google Glass completely failed. Android Wear is well on its way to the grave. Fitbit, Apple and Samsung have all succeeded in wearables over Google.

* Augmented Reality. Remember Google Glass?

The list goes on. My point isn't that Google can't do anything right — that's obviously not true. What I'm saying is that Google trying something and failing isn't really a good argument against it being a viable idea.

Facebook's brand is ailing right now and I think there's growing concern about the way Facebook has been optimized to dominate the user's attention. There might be room for a social network that tries to be something much more minimal than what Facebook has become.


This has changed a bit with GDPR coming into force soon.

When google tried to go push '+' they needed the people to forget about the data, messages, pictures and everything else that was on facebook. That burden was a bit too much.

GDPR requires facebook to provide users with their data in a machine readable format. So that competitors could write migration scripts and there would be no such lock-in. Makes it easy to switch platforms and bring some competition into the space.

Art. 20 GDPR Right to data portability https://gdpr-info.eu/art-20-gdpr/


What a baseless comment marinated in rich whataboutism. There is always another avenue for news or entertainment posing as news. Because of the massive social footprint of an organization like Facebook, regulation is warranted and in fact, over due.


That's interesting to hear from someone that railroaded DRM into the HTML spec, a prime example of what could be called 'weaponised' web (could really call anything moving the open web more toward closed web that, really) considering the DRM anti-circumvention laws that exist around the world.


I think it's a little hard to blame Tim here, DRM was happening with or without it being part of HTML. Either it could be in proprietary plugins or it could be part of the spec, but as long as movie studios were requiring DRM, DRM was going to happen. If anyone railroaded it through, it would be Google, who owns Widevine, and via Chrome, basically can determine web standards with or without the W3C's support, from a practical sense.

So the W3C has to accept DRM to prevent it being in a proprietary plugin, and Firefox had to also accept the DRM to avoid being "the browser that can't play Netflix", and everyone effectively has to go along with it to ensure they still have a seat at the table on the issue, but it all, at the end, comes back to the MPAA, which isn't going to let you have a license to stream their content unless it is locked with DRM, regardless of how futile DRM actually is.


Blame him or not blame him, it was hypocritical to proclaim in all other forums for open web policies and then not vote against DRM when the chips were down. From my very distant viewpoint, it's almost inexplicable.

I couldn't imagine Stallman, Doctorow, or anyone else with as deep a desire for open systems having that divergent a reaction to the one most galling topic in the whole discussion.


Stallman and Doctorow have the convenience of not running organizations which have to work with various corporate needs. They can afford to be religious and uncompromisingly devout. I don't think Tim has that luxury.


I think the following quote from Braveheart is awesome. The whole movie seems designed to turn the audience into William Wallace worshipers, except for this line, which causes an attentive viewer to stop and think:

"Admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage, so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble."


>... ability to compromise that makes a man noble."

Sir Berners-Lee is such a nobility, should we as digital peasants knee before him? Feudalism of the Web is upon us.


The problem with this line of conversation is one side is trashing compromise, and the other side looks like they're defending the indefensible.

We do need the Stallmans of the world to be a counter balance, but we won't be able to have him run the entire world. Consider him kind of Galadriel, if you give him the one ring then the world will despair as they love him.


If Google can "basically determine web standards", then I don't see how it's possible for anyone else to "still have a seat on the table". I mean, if they cared enough about it and were actually on the table in the first place...


>Either it could be in proprietary plugins or it could be part of the spec,

Aren't those EME modules basically proprietary plugins?

>Firefox's implementation of EME uses an open-source sandbox to load the proprietary DRM modules, which are treated as plug-ins that are loaded when EME-encrypted content is requested.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encrypted_Media_Extensions


The W3C doesn't "have to accept" anything, and the fact that they turned their backs on the web is truly disappointing. There is no standards board for the web, which may actually be a better state than having a corrupt, corporatist W3C.


All I see is a great opportunity for the big guys to go from regulation -> regulatory capture -> rent seeking.

When you have a few big players they love to see regulations that make it harder for upstarts to enter the market since they won't have an army of employees who's only job is to ensure compliance with the bureaucratic demands.


Facebook will be at $80 billion in sales in about three years. What could be better as a corporate juggernaut of that scale, than to have the government protecting your ass from competition by dramatically raising the bar to competition.

Every regulation added to the Web/Internet, that a start-up has to comply with, is a benefit to the entrenched hyper rich giants. Regulators better be damn careful every time they lean toward giving in to emotionalism and seek to regulate as the easiest placation tool.

The US has seen a century of this scenario play out in every single major economic sector. We already know how it ends: stagnation, low growth, zero innovation, layoffs, and perpetual rent seeking rotting corporations with low competitive threats domestically.


>Facebook will be at $80 billion in sales in about three years. What could be better as a corporate juggernaut of that scale, than to have the government protecting your ass from competition by dramatically raising the bar to competition.

I already felt the legal pressures from linking to facebook users profiles with a C & D[0] on bootstrapped company with a friend ($100k annualized in year 3), so I decided to move to Indonesia and will relaunch here.

>The US has seen a century of this scenario play out in every single major economic sector. We already know how it ends: stagnation, low growth, zero innovation, layoffs, and perpetual rent seeking rotting corporations with low competitive threats domestically.

Exactly, and in this day in age, it seems like even if one has the tech to compete, you can always be undermined by the incumbents dropping the ladders on the way up. Luckily, it's easier than ever to leverage other government's laws (or lack of jurisdiction) agaisnt one another.

[0] https://www.chillingeffects.org/notices/2037976


Facebook and Google have been quite successful in defending their respective market shares. Regulation, if it lowers the value of the market by, for example, making shady political ads less lucrative, would seem to be more threatening to them, currently.

That’s not to mention that regulators tend to be more cognizant of regulatory capture and their effects on the market than people give them credit for. That’s why you see revenue or other cutoffs in many regulations.


"strangely", the quote:

    Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth    
    that advertising is the only possible business model for 
    online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change
    the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a
    little more creative.
from the actual letter was not mentioned or highlighted, merely the point about regulatory frameworks..


Readable copy for mobile users:

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.


Or we could just do the straightforward thing: tax ads.


Not seeing how this would stop a state-level actor intent on engaging in a disinformation campaign, they'd just have their proxies pay the tax.


It would shift more of the web to non-ad-funded. People would get more of their info from venues without ads carrying disinformation, from whatever source.


> It would shift more of the web to non-ad-funded.

or it would just shift more of the web to non-funded.


Ads are taxed already.


It's clearly not the only business model, it's just been proven time and time again to be a profitable one for certain classes of products.


You can make an argument that it's the only one that succeeds when pitted against the other models in the market. Micropayments have been tried and haven't yet succeeded at the necessary scale. Paywalls have had only very limited success. Ads are the only thing we've so far found that can scale a site to the level of Google or Facebook.

This is both a problem and an opportunity.


> Ads are the only thing we've so far found that can scale a site to the level of Google or Facebook.

That sounds like an argument against the ad model, not for it.


Censorship and bias of information seem to be the major concerns I have with tech companies. Treating them as common carriers so they are not allowed to discriminate seems like something that is needed. Outside of that, I think they are doing a decent job and question whether more regulation will do more harm than good.


> Treating them as common carriers so they are not allowed to discriminate seems like something that is needed

Common carriers for what?

Google and Facebook are by definition discriminators. You access Google so it can discriminate for you, and give you discriminated results that match what you're looking for, and not the entire internet.

You don't sign up for an ISP for discrimination, you sign up for access, so you want it to not discriminate at all.

ISPs provide access, social media and search provide aggregation. Trying to regulate both in the same is pointless.


Yes, this could use some clarification. Aggregation is fine, by discrimination I meant censoring and blocking certain individuals because you don't like them. Unless it is something illegal tech companies should respect freedom of speech.

By analogy, package (mail) is to packet (internet) is to post (social media). That's the common carrier connection I was trying to get at. ISPs and the postal service is not allowed to use discrimination to deny service to individuals because they don't like what they have to say.


> Unless it is something illegal tech companies should respect freedom of speech.

Why would they, when no other company has to? Freedom of speech has nothing to do with others having to allow you to use their services for your speech.

> By analogy, package (mail) is to packet (internet) is to post (social media).

Sure, and email providers are free to block your emails. Or rank them.

I'm not getting your point, are you saying that internet companies should promote all posts equally?


Regulation is not the only solution; lawmakers are imperfect. Decentralized web FTW.


And remember, software engineer != politician


Too late.


Who is "we" in this context? I'd submit that there is no "we" capable of accomplishing this goal effectively for the long term.


The Butterfly War was designed to leverage a heavily regulated internet and make it undermine the cultural institutions that dictate such regulations.

The more you enforce your morality, the more the enforcement will be your executioner.

http://cultstate.com/2017/10/13/The-Butterfly-War/




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