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As It Turns 30, The World Wide Web Is An Arena For Conflict

State sponsored hacks, government-backed fake news and criminality—as the World Wide Web turns 30 years of age, this week presents a good opportunity to examine how a global digital public square is being threatened by authoritarian states, tech companies and criminals whose acts have walled off large areas of digital space. At their worst, instances of electoral hacking and manipulation threaten to degrade our democracies.

This week, the founder of the World Wide Web, the English computer scientist and engineer Tim Berners-Lee, has reflected on some of the problems which plague our digital spaces. In an open letter published earlier this week, Berners-Lee acknowledged that many people now doubted the web could be a driver of positive change.

The use of authoritarian technologies, the viral phenomenon of fake news and the polarizing nature of online conversions; Berners-Lee admits much work has to be done to stop the “downward plunge to a dysfunctional future.”

Berners-Lee, who was knighted in 2004, says news laws governing our digital world require the contribution of all areas of society—from members of the public to business as well as political leaders. “We need open web champions within government—civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web,” he writes.

Berners-Lee’s reflections arrive at a time when we are seeing an increase in digital intrusions into nation state infrastructure, such as the recent attack on Australia’s main political parties and parliament. Influence operations conducted by countries such as Russia are also impacting issues like Brexit. Meanwhile, in China, the Communist Party oversees a supposedly secure Chinese internet using the “Great Firewall”, a system which is now being replicated in countries like Russia and whose influence can be clearly seen, as we recently reported, in countries like Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan and Thailand.

In another interview this week, Berners-Lee said, “Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age.” That sounds laudable, but as the “splinternet” takes shape, how do lawmakers legislate fairly when some of the most dangerous actors are governments themselves?