Saturday 21 September 2019

World Wide Web inventor warns: tech giants may have to be broken up

Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee

Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle

The inventor of the World Wide Web has warned that technology giants like Facebook and Google have grown so dominant they may need to be broken up, unless challengers or changes in taste reduce their clout.

The digital revolution has spawned a handful of US-based technology companies that now have a greater financial and cultural power than most sovereign states.

Tim Berners-Lee, a London-born computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, said he was disappointed with the state of the internet, after scandals over data and social media spreading hate.

"What naturally happens is you end up with one company dominating the field, so through history there is no alternative to really coming in and breaking things up," Mr Berners-Lee, 63, said. "There is a danger of concentration."

But he urged caution too, saying innovation could ultimately cut firms down to size. "Before breaking them up, we should see whether they are not just disrupted by a small player beating them out of the market, but by the market shifting, by the interest going somewhere else," he said.

Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook have a total market cap of $3.7trn, equal to Germany's GDP.

Mr Berners-Lee came up with the idea for what he initially called 'Mesh' while working at Europe's physics research centre CERN, calling it the World Wide Web in 1990.

When asked who had the biggest influence on him, he said: "Mum and dad. They were building computers, so I grew up living in a world where everything was mathematics and the excitement of being able to programme something was very fresh."

There was, he said, no 'Eureka' moment. Instead, it was hard work, computer science experience and an attempt to better share information with colleagues and students. "Eureka moments are complete nonsense. I don't even believe the one about Archimedes. He had been thinking about it for a long time," he said.

Now a professor at MIT and Oxford, he expressed dismay at the way Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users. That scandal, he said, was a tipping point for many.

"I am disappointed with the state of the Web," he said. "We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked."

He added that social media is still being used to spread hate. "If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly. And you wonder: 'Well is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?'"


Irish Independent

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