In 1989, Timothy Berners-Lee was working as a contractor at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN, from its French name) when things began to get away from him.
He and his colleagues were having trouble keeping track of the large projects typical to the organisation. The average length of stay for a researcher was two years: consequently information was constantly being lost. CERN was a constantly evolving, non-linear development that required a decentralised database to keep track of all its moving parts, so Berners-Lee came up with one. He proposed a system accessible from numerous different terminals, with keywords that acted as links to various indirectly related concepts. Sound familiar? Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web for the purpose of book-keeping.
While it took a little longer for the internet we all love and know today to eventuate, Berners-Lee definitely sowed the seeds. But like Doctor Frankenstein, he holds some reservations about how his creation is currently being used.
Speaking to Time in June, 2001, Berners-Lee worried that the Web would,
“allow cranks and nut cases to find in the world 20 or 30 other cranks and nut cases who are absolutely convinced of the same things. Allow them to set up filters around themselves … and develop a pothole of culture out of which they can’t climb.”
Which sounds a lot like those online echo chambers everybody’s been raising hell about. And writing in the Guardian, Berners-Lee seems to have seen that fear come to life.
“…And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire…”
He also spoke about the astonishing ease with which data mining companies can procure our personal information and the need for transparency in online political advertising. These were phrased as the “three things we need to change to save it [the web]“.
But are these really the biggest problems affecting online life? Chattr has already examined the phenomenon of fake news, and while it’s proved to be occasionally dangerous – like when someone shot up a Washington pizzeria because Alex Jones said that Democrats were running a child prostitution ring out of it – it takes a special kind of person to fall for the stuff, and the chances of it having significantly impacted the 2016 election are small.
Yet Berners-Lee’s remaining points still stand. The online world is becoming increasingly hostile towards users in a number of ways. Chief among them is the potential for your data to be manipulated or sold to broker companies. Personal data can be collected through cookies, search and shopping records, facial recognition, and clicks. Most user agreements involve signing over your rights to this data – Facebook famously used user photos in an advertisement for their service – which can then be sold to third-parties with an interest in your political leanings and shopping habits. While it’s basically impossible to go anywhere on the internet without leaving a record of your movement, there are ways to manage it.
You can decide it doesn’t matter.
If you’re happy to share your information with third-party companies, and don’t believe it’s being used for nefarious purposes, then you don’t have much to worry about. Many people feel similarly – in the aftermath of the NSA spying revelations, the adage “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear” was going around a lot. The problem with this first solution is the “slippery slope” – your data could be used for a number of nefarious purposes should the wrong people ever come into power. For example: it would be very easy to construct a registry of different sexual and racial groups out of the personal data people already have available online.
You can take steps to limit the amount of data you leave lying around.
There are several free encryption services that allow you to keep your information a little more secure (remember, no vault is truly impenetrable), as well as a number of methods to secure your browser against more basic data-mining. If you’re worried about what groups like the NSA and other national security bodies are doing with your information, you may want to avoid Cloud services based in one of the Five Eyes countries – which include Australia. It also wouldn’t hurt to delete Facebook and other social media that uses your data to offer you choices (i.e. suggest friends & pages). While this might be a step too far for most people, it’s quickly becoming the only way to make sure your data is truly safe from prying eyes.
You can acquire the services of a data removal company.
These organisations will do the hard work of scrubbing your presence from the internet, sending removal requests to data brokers and securing what information is left. This service comes with a steep price – the work involved in making a person vanish off the face of the digital earth isn’t easy, as every broker has different terms and hoops to jump through. It’s also unlikely that these services are as effective as they claim. When it comes to data security, you’ve got to be paranoid.
All of these things will keep you safe from Berners-Lee’s third point – that our information is being used to create targeted political ads – but in this case the individual also has a responsibility to seek out the truth. If somebody is complacent enough to accept a political ad as absolute fact then, just as with fake news, they probably weren’t going to vote the other way. These targeted ads can be used to reinforce an echo chamber, but they can’t construct one. People like being in bubbles, and very rarely do the work to get out of them.
For his part, Berners-Lee and his Web Foundation have a five-year plan for fixing this mess. They want to “fight to ensure people’s rights on the web are legally protected”. This entails making sure the law respects our online privacy, and allowing us to have more control over the collection and use of our personal data. How exactly he’s going to do this is unclear, but it’s the thought that counts right? Meanwhile, you can use all of the above to keep your data safe.
Responsibility for your information starts with you.