Tribalism on the Net

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee (the computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989) said,

  • I am disappointed with the current state of the Web … We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked …

  • "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?’

  •  “Before breaking [up the large internet players], 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,”

Separately, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, speaking at the Wired 25 conference in mid October, said: 

  • "I think the Internet in its current incarnation is a confirmation bias machine ... I worry that some of these technologies will be very useful to autocratic regimes to enforce their will.

  • "Having technology that increases confirmation bias probably isn't good. It is going to lead to more tribalism

  • "The book was invented and people could write really evil books and lead bad revolutions with them. And create fascists empires with books. It doesn't mean the book is bad. Society develops an immune response eventually to the bad uses of new technology, but it takes time."

Finally, the report “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism" by Freedom House (sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and LaborDutch Ministry of Foreign AffairsNew York Community TrustGoogleInternet Society, and Oath) included: 

  • "In many ways, the internet erases borders. But as governments recognize the importance of the data flowing in and out of their countries, they are establishing new rules and barriers in the name of national sovereignty, allowing officials to control and inspect such information at will. Governments in 18 out of 65 countries have passed new laws or directives to increase state surveillance since June 2017, often eschewing independent oversight and exposing individuals to persecution or other dangers in order to gain unfettered access.

  • "Some of these countries now require that tech firms store their citizens’ data on local servers, with the stated intention of either making the records more accessible to national security agencies or protecting them from theft or exploitation by others. ChinaRussia, VietnamNigeria, and Pakistan have already instituted data localization requirements. The government in India, home to the world’s second-largest population of internet users after China, has proposed similar rules on privacy grounds. Although the country scored a major victory for internet freedom when its Supreme Court ruled in August 2017 that Indians have a fundamental right to privacy, it has also been plagued by security breaches.

  • "On the surface, data localization appears to be a rational response to such concerns, but it makes little difference to transnational hackers whether Indians’ personal data are located in Bangalore or Boston. Moreover, Indian authorities have already proven to be poor custodians of citizens’ information. In 2018, researchers discovered a number of breaches in India’s national biometric database, named Aadhar, leaving the data of 1.1 billion people vulnerable to identity thieves and other malicious actors. The scandal demonstrated the urgent need for reforms to the country’s data protection framework, beyond simply requiring that data be stored locally.

  • "With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities."

  • Access the report here.


  • Tim Berners-Lee has shared these concerns for several years. Today, he seems to advises that the best solution for improving the Internet may be market driven solutions.   

  • Papers such as "The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism" help to increase awareness of censorship, disinformation and propaganda on the Internet - a process that can lead to corrective actions..

  • The future of the Internet will be shaped by the tension between the interests of governments (including the agendas of “strong-men"), businesses (focusing on profits, and accessing large markets) and citizens (that have varied levels of concern for data privacy).

Paul Dravis