'Nasty' social media needs reining in, Sir Tim Berners-Lee tells UAE summit

Government Communication Forum hears of the pitfalls of open data and what needs to change

Sharjah, March 28, 2018: Timothy John Berners-Lee, Creator, World Wide Web gestures during his speech on 'Future of Open Data' at the International  Government Communication Forum 2018  at the Expo Centre in Sharjah. Satish Kumar for the National/ Story by Nick Webster

Social media must be reined in and regulated before a tool for constructive debate becomes lost to "nastiness", the creator of the world wide web told a UAE audience.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee said a new balance between data sharing and government regulation needs to be found to restore faith in social media, as the online world accelerates into the fourth industrial revolution.

He addressed the International Government Communication Forum in Sharjah as the news agenda remains dominated by the future of Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Data from millions of users has ended up at the disposal of the political consultants, forcing some uncomfortable questions for Facebook as to how personal information is used without consent.

Speaking at the forum, Mr Berners-Lee said that while open data provides transparency, accountability and economic value, it can be abused.

“The world wide web was built with all good intentions and open data is really important,” he said.

“Maybe social media has become more of a tool to promote nastiness rather than constructive discussion.

“It is also being used by states to deliberately manipulate people. There are now more websites than neurons in our brain, and there is a lot of data out there.

“The science into how the web influences our behaviour is still emerging, so it is not easy to analyse and determine what the long term consequences will be.”

Amid the fallout from the recent Facebook data scandal, on Wednesday the company has redesigned its settings menu on mobile devices to make privacy settings easier to find.

“Last week showed how much more work we need to do to enforce our policies and help people understand how Facebook works and the choices they have over their data,” said Erin Egan vice president and chief privacy officer at Facebook.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find and that we must do more to keep people informed.”


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Mr Berners-Lee is leading a new project at acclaimed research university the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to radically change the way web applications work.

Solid (derived from "social linked data") is a proposed set of conventions and tools for building decentralised social applications based on Linked Data principles, resulting in true data ownership and improved privacy.

It promises to give users the freedom to choose where their data resides and who is allowed to access it by decoupling content from the application itself.

“If you come to my office and knock on my door asking for data, I’m in control; but if I put that information on the web, I lose that control,” said Mr Berners-Lee.

“When companies and governments are putting their data out there, they are opening themselves up to more scrutiny from their investors and citizens.

“If you look at what’s happened to Facebook, a lot of things are going on with that data, some of it accidental and some deliberate.”

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 21, 2018 a lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters location in Menlo Park, California.
Facebook said March 28, 2018 it would overhaul its privacy settings tools to put users "more in control" of their information on the social media website."We've heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find and that we must do more to keep people informed," Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan and Deputy General Counsel Ashlie Beringer said in a blog post."We're taking additional steps in the coming weeks to put people more in control of their privacy," they confirmed.

Panellists speaking at the Sharjah forum said the relationship between governments and the private sector needs to change to help control the use of personal information.

"We have a private sector that is developing technology and that is a good thing for mankind and economies," said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary.

“Technology is growing so fast; governments are still learning how to manage that relationship.

“The question now is where is that balance between protecting citizens and technology, as many of these tech companies have moved into the media space by sharing information.

“Companies need to meet with governments around the world to manage this, as we don’t want to end up with these companies trying to create censorship.”

The impact of social media on recent US and UK elections has prompted wider discussion on data sharing and the need for government regulation.

Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer or Chief Product Officer Chris Cox will appear before the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in April to answer questions on the company’s data sharing policy.

In January, Twitter announced in a blog post it would be contacting almost 700,000 users who had unwittingly interacted with bots controlled by the Russian Internet Research Agency during the 2016 US election campaign.

“The world is not yet fully understanding of the dangers we are facing from data sharing, we are heading into dangerous waters,” said Naguib Sawiris, media mogul and founder of Orascom Telecom, an international communications company in Cairo.

“Private companies need to be more transparent, but the goal should not be to stifle and suppress the flow of information.

“The public sector is crippled with bureaucracy and red tape in this region. There should be a clear code of conduct and regulation that is developed from a democratic context.”

The two-day forum at the Sharjah Exhibition Centre united those working in the media and government communications to discuss their future roles in the age of digital communities.

Protection of data may be the responsibility of governments, but Mustapha El Khalfi, minister delegate and official spokesman of the government of Morocco, said there needs to be a partnership with the private sector to ensure fake news does not continue to become a global problem.

“Young people are not consuming their news through their televisions or newspapers any more, they are acquiring information through their smart devices,” he said.

“Governments need to have a presence in social media, otherwise they will not succeed.”