Sunday, November 05, 2006

TBL Pwned by BBC, Guardian

Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow you have to thank for never getting anything done around the house anymore because you're always on the Web. He's involved in a new initiative to formally study web science, so he gave an interview to the BBC recently (audio included), which was picked up on by the British newspaper The Guardian, among many other periodicals. Here's the gist of the print version from the BBC site:

Web inventor fears for the future
By Pallab Ghosh

Science correspondent, BBC News

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is concerned about the future of the web.

The British developer of the world wide web says he is worried about the way it could be used to spread misinformation and "undemocratic forces". The web has transformed the way many people work, play and do business. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee told BBC News he feared that, if the way the internet is used is left to develop unchecked, "bad things" could happen. He wants to set up a web science research project to study the social implications of the web's development.

Oh no! Bad Things! Here's some of what the Guardian said:

Creator of web warns of fraudsters and cheats

Blogging one of biggest perils, says innovator
Launch of first degree course in online science

Bobbie Johnson, technology correspondent
Friday November 3, 2006

The creator of the world wide web told the Guardian last night that the internet is in danger of being corrupted by fraudsters, liars and cheats. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Briton who founded the web in the early 1990s, says that if the internet is left to develop unchecked, "bad phenomena" will erode its usefulness. His creation has transformed the way millions of people work, do business, and entertain themselves. But he warns that "there is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way". He singles out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continuing development of the web, because of the risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and uncheckable information.

Here's something from another Guardian response:

Protecting the web

Tim Berners-Lee is right to worry about the future of the web. The history of such innovations is marked by persecution.

The world wide web is 15 years old and still in its technological adolescence. Its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, worries that "bad things" could happen and the web could be used to spread misinformation and support undemocratic practices. Berners-Lee is right is worrying about the future of the net. What is critical is not simply worrying about spread of "bad things", but finding a healthy balance between the benefits and risks of the web.

[Extended analogy follows about the history of the acceptance of coffee in the Middle East and Europe.]

Sounds scary! However...

Let's just see what TBL says on his own blog:

Blogging is great

Submitted by timbl on Fri, 2006-11-03 10:11. ::

People have, since it started, complained about the fact that there is junk on the web. And as a universal medium, of course, it is important that the web itself doesn't try to decide what is publishable. The way quality works on the web is through links.

It works because reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don't just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there. One's chosen starting page, and a nurtured set of bookmarks, are the entrance points, then, to a selected subweb of information which one is generally inclined to trust and find valuable.

A great example of course is the blogging world. Blogs provide a gently evolving network of pointers of interest. As do FOAF files. I've always thought that FOAF could be extended to provide a trust infrastructure for (e..g.) spam filtering and OpenID-style single sign-on and its good to see things happening in that space.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, alas, my attempt to explain this was turned upside down into a "blogging is one of the biggest perils" message. Sigh. I think they took their lead from an unfortunate BBC article, which for some reason stressed concerns about the web rather than excitement, failure modes rather than opportunities. (This happens, because when you launch a Web Science Research Initiative, people ask what the opportunities are and what the dangers are for the future. And some editors are tempted to just edit out the opportunities and headline the fears to get the eyeballs, which is old and boring newspaper practice. We expect better from the Guardian and BBC, generally very reputable sources)

In fact, it is a really positive time for the web. Startups are launching, and being sold [Disclaimer: people I know] again, academics are excited about new systems and ideas, conferences and camps and wikis and chat channels and are hopping with energy, and every morning demands an excruciating choice of which exciting link to follow first. (Ed. Note: What a great turn of the phrase!)

And, fortunately, we have blogs. We can publish what we actually think, even when misreported.

Fortunately, not everyone is going with "The Sky Is Falling" as their lead. For instance, The International Herald Tribune's headline on this story reads "Web science is 'big next step' in information." IHT excerpt: "The Web isn't about what you can do with computers," Berners-Lee said. "It's people and, yes, they are connected by computers. But computer science, as the study of what happens in a computer, doesn't tell you about what happens on the Web." The Web science program is an academic effort, but corporate technology executives and computer scientists said the research could greatly influence Web-based businesses. They pointed in particular to research by Berners-Lee and others aimed at building more "intelligence" into the Web - moving toward what is known as the Semantic Web - as an area of study that could yield a big payoff.

Just for kicks, here's the Google News page on this story; Interesting to skim and see which journalists go with optimism and which rags go for the Chicken Little approach.

Update, 5:22 pm, 11/7/06: Here's a response from Bobbie Johnson, writer of the Guardian article. Excerpt: So what happened? First off, nobody made Tim's quotes up - he did indeed say that there is a danger the web, without serious thought and design, is in danger of becoming a place where "untruths start to spread more than truths". However some of his quotes did unfortunately lose their context - particularly the ones about blogging. In the process of reaching the dead-tree version of the Guardian, they lost their grounding and certain aspects were then amplified down the chain. I take responsibility for that. But unfortunately, mistakes do happen - and that's why we have a procedure to fix them. After a long conversation with Tim on Friday, before he published his post, he did as I suggested and put his complaint in an email to our independent ombudsman, readers' editor Ian Mayes. It's not necessarily as quick as we'd all like it to be, but it is thorough and effective... ...Yes, we get things wrong sometimes. But when we do, we work hard to fix it.

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Blogger Get A Life! said...

"The creator of the world wide web told the Guardian last night that the internet is in danger of being corrupted by fraudsters, liars and cheats."

Just like dating was ruined by married guys pretending to be single...

"He singles out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continuing development of the web, because of the risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and uncheckable information."

Hey, I resemble that remark!

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:13 AM  

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