A gold standard against disinformation on the web – by its founder.

It’s worth taking a closer look beyond the religion v rationalism debate at what web inventor Tim Berners Lee wants to do with the World Wide Web Foundation. The aims are global and impeccable as he explained them further to the BBC

“to advance One Web that is free and open, to expand the Web’s capability and robustness and to extend the Web’s benefits to all people on the planet.”

Said Berners-Lee: “There needs to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources…” And he added later: “The Foundation will also look at concerns that the web has become less democratic, and its use influenced too much by large corporations and vested interests.” Sir Tim is concerned about the web’s development as a major source of disinformation. My question is: how can you devise “new systems” for a phenomenon as vast as the World Wide Web that are effective and democratic at the same time?
Is it technologically possible? Web entrepreneurs have been scoffing at the very idea since its inception. To fund a strategy, tax break investment US style may help. For financial/consumer affairs you can use consumer comparison sites or big brands like Which or the BBC – but that brings us back, closer to big corporations or top-down rulings, and takes us further away from democracy. Without wishing to carp, “a $5 million seed grant over five years from the John S and James L Knight Foundation.” for the Foundation is a drop in the ocean. Compare this with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, with an endowment of US$38.7 billion as of December 31, 2007 (assuming Wikipedia for ever democratic but needs checking at its own insistence, has hit the gold standard for accuracy on this one!)

  • Devil Eire

    Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide-Web, not the internet.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    “There needs to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources…”

    Aye sure, who’s going to control that? Such a system will turn society into a bunch of braindead, easily manipulated clones.

  • Brian Walker

    devil eire – you’re right of course, thanks

  • Pete Baker

    Brian

    “My question is: how can you devise “new systems” for a phenomenon as vast as the World Wide Web that are effective and democratic at the same time?”

    I don’t think you can. And I don’t think it’s desireable to seek to do so – in terms of setting up an authority of “trustworthiness”.

    But it’s also worth looking at Berners Lees examples of concern.

    As Adam Rutherford noted here

    He gave two examples to the BBC

    The use of the web to spread fears that flicking the switch on the LHC could create a Black Hole that could swallow up the Earth particularly concerned him, he said. In a similar vein was the spread of rumours that the MMR vaccine given to children in Britain was harmful.

    Back to Adam Rutherford

    However in both these examples, the main engine of wrongheadedness is not the web per se, but mainstream media. In the case of the LHC, all coverage – from the relentless John Humphrys on the Today programme to reports from every single British newspaper – perpetuated the apocalyptic fantasy. The repercussions of such boringly repetitive reporting for Cern are insignificant. In fact, it may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to physics, at a time when teaching the subject is somewhat in crisis. It may be tiresome, but all of a sudden there is talk of bosons in the Sun.

    In the case of MMR, the repercussions are immeasurably more serious. As a result of myths perpetuated by many newspapers, MMR uptake in the UK has plummeted to an all-time low, and there were more cases of measles in England and Wales in 2006 and 2007 than in the previous 10 years put together.

    It may be the case that these fictions grew in the foetid atmosphere of cyberspace, but their roots were in the press, and were perpetuated by the press. To blame the web is incorrect. How would newspaper websites be labelled under Berners-Lee’s plan? For the LHC, would you adorn coverage with the warning “Features childish and lazy journalism”? Or for reports that perpetuate the connection between MMR and autism: “Harbours misinformation that could result in a potentially lethal epidemic”? For messageboards the legend would simply be “May contain idiots”.

    And there are other examples.

  • Vint Cerf

    :o)

  • While much misinformation is spread by the mainstream media, web sites are not blameless (and if a field is decreed to be “not news”, they are the only game in town for information or propaganda). So there could be value in labelling web sites.

    But I don’t think he’s talking about a single ministry of truthiness for websites. Sir Tim spoke of “systems (plural) to give websites a label” and said “So I’d be interested in **different** organisations labelling websites in **different** ways”.

    There is nothing inherently “centralised” about a system that allows various organisations to label websites. It’s not so different from Digg, StumbleUpon, or even blogs that allow their users to comment on or highlight websites.

    If any organisation can use the same standardised format to associate labels with URLs (domains, pages, or whatever), then it CAN BE left up to readers to decide which labelling organisations to trust. There can even be (thinking laterally here) reputation facilities, perhaps implemented as more labels attached to [the websites of] the labelling organisations, so that if you prefer not to have your preconceptions challenged, you can stick to labellers who won’t disagree with you.

    This is semantic web stuff, of the sort Sir Tim has been advocating for ages.
    It doesn’t have to be centralised.
    It’s just an extension of his previous ideas.

    But standardising it “needs some work”.
    It could be quite good….