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Tim Berners-Lee has lost the plot


Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has decided that information on the internet can be wrong, and the solution is to rate websites on whether they are credible or not.

On face value the idea has some appeal. Berners-Lee notes that rumors of a black hole resulting from the Large Hadron Collider concerned him, and in an interesting underhanded attack on Christianity, said that “On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable.” There are many wrong things on the internet, and the ability to filter those, to know which is true or credible would appeal to many.

And yet, what is truth? Millions of people supporting the McCain-Palin ticket in the United States believe that the earth is 4000 years old and dinosaurs and men existed side-by-side. Sarah Palin advocates that this be taught in schools. There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and direct links between Al Qaeda and Hussein, or so the US Government told the world. If you watch political commercials, you’d believe that Barack Obama teaches sex ed to 6 year olds, and is anti-immigration.

Who decides the truth?

Is not the very nature of the internet, a free platform for most, a conduit that allows the truth to shine when all around us is lies? Do not internet users in China find ways of bypassing the national firewall so they to can find the truth. Do not those of us in free countries benefit from receiving news that isn’t filtered and controlled by the corporate media elite? Is not this very freedom protection against wrongdoing?

Any attempt at grading internet content based on truth would be the start of a slippery slope towards global totalitarianism. We may not like everything on the internet, but as Robert Houghwout Jackson, US Supreme Court Judge and Chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials said: “The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish.”

Or consider John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

As much as I’m sure Tim Berners-Lee has good intentions, in making such a proposal one can only presume that he has lost the plot. He may have created the world wide web, and for that he deserves a lifetime of praise, but the idea that his creation be rated based on rankings around truths needs to die quickly before repressive governments, and those that nearly are, use his words as an excuse to censor and filter the internet further.

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11 Responses to “Tim Berners-Lee has lost the plot”

  1. neuraxon77

    Duncan's lost the plot. Tim's desire for rating content has merit so long as there is an audit trail along with annotations for necessary citations. That's how the peer review process works in any field that matures, eventually professionals get given more weight and the good content rises to the top… most of the time. It's not that different to Techmeme. :)

  2. TM

    I respectfully disagree with your entire thesis. No one is saying we should stifle a “false opinion.” No one is saying that we won't allow people to publish posts or blogs as they do today, on any topic they chose. The premise is that we should be able to easily identify credible news. Yes, credibility has subjective aspects but there are objective components as well – and those are the ones we can easily address using the websites you deem so useless. Objective fact checking, citation of sources, transparency – these are things we can and should measure. By merely introducing a 'scorecard' or a 'track record' for a news source, I don't think we've crossed the line to “global totalitarianism.”

    I will defend your right to have an opinion, but I think you will find I am not alone in thinking that it is you, Duncan, who may have lost the plot.

  3. Durn

    I think it's pretty comical that you're spreading rumors about Palin without checking the facts, yet call Berners-Lee the one with the problem….

    Can't wait for the election. People are going to go insane when Obama melts down.

  4. Not A Rumor


    On Aug. 29, The Boston Globe reported that Palin was open to teaching creationism in public schools. That’s true. She supports teaching creationism alongside evolution, though she has not actively pursued such a policy as governor.

    In an Oct. 25, 2006, debate, when asked about teaching alternatives to evolution, Palin replied: “Teach both.”

  5. Dan

    Ratings are exactly how sites like Slashdot and Reddit work. People submit things, and other people rate them. Inidivudal sites might be angry that their horrible design gets the ratings it deserves, but nobody else seems to think its unfair.

    What I didn't see in “Sir Tim's” proposal was the idea that these ratings be government-sponsored or state-controlled. In fact, the article states that he and his team “concluded that a whole variety of different mechanisms was needed. ”

    So, what's to criticize here? I'd like to see a bit more detail before concluding that Berners-Lee is that far off track.

  6. Pete

    I think he has a good point here. Who decides what is 'true' or 'reliable' information?
    One only has to look at serious academia to see that it thrives on debate and differences of opinion on many things. Surely, rather than rating sources/sites for reliability it would be far better to encourage people to be critical in their own thinking and not simply take what they see/read at face value. It is perfectly possible to follow both sides of a debate online and see both a theory and its critique. What Tim was proposing would merely perpetuate the view that one can easily establish 'correct' information on 'approved' sites and would actually encourage people to disengage from checking things themselves and keeping a critical approach.
    Its that critical approach that needs to be encouraged, and Tim's proposal would not do that.

  7. Notforme

    Rate websites on whether they are credible or not? What do people think websites are? Do they know that a website is simply a conduit of information just like that other vehicle, the book? Would something credible enough to print be anything but credible on a web page? Or is the web some super mind control agent that is so radically more powerful than a simple book that it needs to be controlled by some entity? And what would that entity be?

  8. J

    This is how net already works! People vote with their feet by linking to pages they find 'credible' (or they like, which amounts to the same thing in your view). And most people use Google to find pages (truth) they don't know of yet. And Google works on the basis of 'votes' (links). Sigh. TBL is just suggesting a more transparent version, surely?

  9. curiouslypersistent

    I think this conflates truth with credibility. Truth is nebulous and is largely subjective. But truth/conjecture from one site can be more trustworthy than others, and I can see that is the argument behind ranking the source. It would never work though – aside from the gaming implications, mass opinion resorts to the lowest common denominator. Lolcats would rule the web

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