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Poorly woven Web

Deutschland Konstantin Klein in Bonn
Konstantin Klein
November 27, 2019

The inventor of the World Wide Web says governments should do more to make the internet a safer and more empowering place. But he, of all people, should know that this is a quixotic effort, DW's Konstantin Klein writes.

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At the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Berlin, Sir Tim Berners-Lee presented his Contract for the Web. The contract aims to make the internet a safer and more empowering place.

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Let's look at the birth of the internet. The internet is older than most netizens can fathom. The idea of creating a network of knowledge and research goes back to Vannevar Bush, a US engineer and presidential adviser from the 1940s. The implementation of his concept — the creation of a disparate web of servers — dates back to the 1960s and was co-created by academia and the military, which is why some have dubbed the internet a kind of "bastard" entity. The underlying idea and the actual internet itself have made summits like the IGF and Berners-Lee's initiative necessary. But they also explain why Berners-Lee's efforts, which are certainly well intended, will not bear fruit. 

Klein, Konstantin
Konstantin Klein

Berners-Lee knows this. His work laid the foundation for the World Wide Web — which is what we today commonly perceive to be the internet. His initial concept had centered on how to enable his colleagues at the European Organization for Nuclear Research to share their ideas and research findings with one another without having to go through official channels and along organizational hierarchies. This, incidentally, brings us right back to the above mentioned ivory tower metaphor.

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'Divide and undermine'

The first people to connect though the WWW had shared interests. Today, of course, this has radically changed, with a broad diversity of people using social media and other places on the internet.

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In a statement, Berners-Lee urged supporters to "act now — and act together — to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide and undermine." Unfortunately, we have no technological means at our disposal to stop people from exploiting, dividing, undermining and manipulating others.

The reason for this is the internet's military DNA. It was designed as an indestructible network that would withstand nuclear war. One of the internet's key features is that it always allows users to circumvent technical glitches, barriers and even firewalls to access the information they're after. This is why states like Russia and China have to go to great technological lengths to prevent their citizen from getting information from abroad — and why they never entirely manage to seal their countries off, thanks to freely accessible technology like virtual private networks (VPN) or Tor. To literally cut off internet access, as Iran has done, is not a feasible option for any global player in our interconnected era.

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The problem does not lie in the lack of effective rules to govern and improve the internet. Instead, the problem lies in human nature. Humans are gullible, cognitively lazy and driven by prejudices. This means they easily fall for any nonsense, provided it is presented in an appealing enough fashion. Social networks the world over have realized this and are happy to exploit it for financial gain — or to further the political agenda of their masters.  

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The Youth Internet Governance Forum and Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser have highlighted the issue: They want sensitive private data to be better protected and insist that we must have an enforceable right to know which data is being recorded and for what purpose. Alas, the past two years have shown that any new insights in this regard will be ignored by online rabble-rousers. Facts, apparently, are just too dull for them.

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