Accountability for the Algorithms

Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Wire URN:14461971

The World Wide Web is about to reach an amazing and terrible milestone: soon, 50 percent of the world’s population will be online. For Vanity Fair, Katrina Brooker reports on how Tim Berners-Lee, reflecting on how corporations like Facebook and Google have misused his creation to manipulate and spy on users, is attempting to revive the original promise of an open and safe web for all. He’s building a new platform called Solid, to give users privacy and control over their information.

Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.

For the man who set all this in motion, the mushroom cloud was unfolding before his very eyes. “I was devastated,” Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. “Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.” Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted.

The forces that Berners-Lee unleashed nearly three decades ago are accelerating, moving in ways no one can fully predict. And now, as half the world joins the Web, we are at a societal inflection point: Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?

For now, the Solid technology is still new and not ready for the masses. But the vision, if it works, could radically change the existing power dynamics of the Web. The system aims to give users a platform by which they can control access to the data and content they generate on the Web. This way, users can choose how that data gets used rather than, say, Facebook and Google doing with it as they please. Solid’s code and technology is open to all—anyone with access to the Internet can come into its chat room and start coding.

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