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Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’
Tim Berners-Lee says social media is still being used to propagate hate but wonders if that is because Facebook or Twitter were built in a certain way. Photograph: DESKCUBE/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Tech giants such as Facebook and Google have grown so dominant they may need to be broken up, unless challengers or changes in taste reduce their clout, Tim Berners-Lee has said.
Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who invented the world wide web in 1989, said he was disappointed with the current state of the internet, following scandals over the abuse of personal data and the use of social media to spread hate.
The digital revolution has spawned a handful of US-based technology companies since the 1990s that now have a combined financial and cultural power greater than most sovereign states.
Tim Berners-Lee speaks. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters
Berners-Lee told Reuters: “What naturally happens is you end up with one company dominating the field so through history there is no alternative to really coming in and breaking things up. There is a danger of concentration.”
But he also urged caution, saying the speed of innovation in technology and tastes could ultimately cut some of the biggest firms down to size.
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“Before breaking them up, 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,” Berners-Lee said.
Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook have a combined market capitalisation of $3.7tn, equal to Germany’s GDP last year.
Berners-Lee came up with the idea for what he initially called “Mesh” while working at the European physics research centreCern, calling it the World Wide Web in 1990.
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Now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Oxford, Berners-Lee expressed dismay at the way consultancy Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users from a researcher.
That scandal, he said, was a tipping point for many. “I am disappointed with the current state of the web,” he said. “We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked.”
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, apologised after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and pledged to do more to protect users’ data. But social media, Berners-Lee said, was still being used to propagate hate.
“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?’”