The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the 'World Wild Web'

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

Last week marked a key anniversary in the history of the modern world. It was widely observed by beard stroking deep thinkers who listen to Radio 4 around the clock but did you celebrate it?

You should’ve done as this particular birthday marked the invention of something which has changed the lives of the vast majority of us, except those of us who live in caves. I am, of course, banging on about it now being 30 years since the idea for the world wide web was first conceived.

As we know all too well, the man responsible for this generation defining innovation is Sir Tim Berners-Lee and he is somebody who everybody should be personally thanking for difference that he has made to our lives.

It is thanks to him that almost nobody uses desk spikes anymore or that strangers no longer need to meet up underneath the clock at mainline railway stations.

Sir Tim is rightly lauded for the genius of his achievements but he also acutely aware of the unintended consequences of his efforts.

Last week he told reporters that as well as giving “marginalised groups a voice” and generally making our lives easier, the web had also enabled the “spread of hatred” and made “all sorts of crime easier to commit”. He is also working on a solution to the problem of companies using our precious data how they please.

He says that there is lots of work to be done before all of these problems can be fixed but believes one of the solutions is for users to agree to a contract, effectively establishing global online laws and standards.

Who can argue with him? The web has long been described as a digital Wild West and, although there is some regulation, it does appear that anything goes. Last week the world bore witness to the horrors of the Christchurch terror attacks, which were broadcast on social media by the alleged perpetrator.

If that was not horrific enough, thousands upon thousands of social media users thought it perfectly ok to share footage of murder on their timelines. While these platforms did remove this footage, it was still reasonably easy to find later in the day of the attacks.

Big tech companies are hives of innovation and home to some of the brightest minds on the planet but can only play catch up in situations such as the aftermath of the horrors in New Zealand. It doesn’t really make any sense to this particular social media user.

Nor does it make sense that there are so many unpleasant people allowed to peddle their unpleasant thoughts with very little consequence most of the time. There was a time when sending a poison pen letter required a certain amount of effort to pull off, which is why they weren’t especially common, but these days online trolls can spread their bile in a matter of seconds.

When Sir Tim first drew up his first plans for a network which would be used to share ideas, he could not have envisaged how this concept would evolve and, in some cases, be abused.

It is absolutely right that we celebrate the web and the difference it has made but we all have a duty to use more responsibly than we do.