World Wide Web Creator Tim Berners-Lee Should Have Called Out Racism Directly

Sir Tim Berners-Lee took to a tiny part of his idea, the World Wide Web, to ask “30 years on, what’s next #ForTheWeb?”

Then, in writing his post, Sir Tim gave us an analysis, rather than a forecast:

Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.

To tackle any problem, we must clearly outline and understand it. I broadly see three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

What Sir Tim should have done, something that would have really hit the buzzometer and woke people up, was call out racism and racist acts on the World Wide Web. What is called “cyber racism.”

Cyber Racism Must Be Stopped

What bothers me are the many acts of cyber-racism that go unpunished. On Twitter, for example, there are so-called parody accounts that fan race-hate, and put down African Americans. And in the area of sports on Twitter, it’s all too common to see people like Clay Travis use his platform for takes that are racist – so much so, he himself has asked the question “am I racist?”. He has also taken to attacking now former ESPN contributor Jemele Hill for pointing out racism in the sports industry.

For all of this, Clay Travis has been given a platform by Fox Sports, and rode the wave of President Trump-encouraged racist actors to a place of online stardom he didn’t see when he was just a sports blogger.

In the process, Clay Travis has been called one of the “darlings” of the “alt-right” which is defined as “a loosely connected and somewhat ill-defined grouping of American white supremacists/white nationalists, white separatists” according to Wikipedia. That pretty much means Travis is a white supremacist. But here’s the catch: Travis claims to be a lifelong Democrat who voted for Barack Obama – twice (Hooray!). Thus, considering the reaction to what he says, it’s clear he’s using America’s racial divisions to elevate his media platform. And all of this is happening on The World Wide Web that Sir Tim Berners-Lee created.

What Sir Tim Berners-Lee should have done is called for a complete stop to that use of his creation – to fan the flames of hate. He should have pointed to social successes in the growth of the World Wide Web, like The Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring was defined as “a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East in late 2010. It began in response to oppressive regimes and a low standard of living, beginning with protests in Tunisia.” But it’s well know that the The Arab Spring could not have happened without blogs, bloggers, and social media.

While it’s true that large percentages of the Arab Nations don’t use social media to get information, it’s noted that blogs, bloggers, and social media played a giant role in allowing the outside World to keep up with what was going on. Translation: the UC Berkeley student from Egypt could follow the The Arab Spring from America, and even participate via phone calls and other ways of passing information. Then, sites like PayPal allowed the sending of money to help groups directly involved in the The Arab Spring. Sir Tim Berners-Lee missed that, it seems. And could have used the example of The Arab Spring as one of a positive use of World Wide Web.

Instead, Sir Tim gave us this:

…we can create both laws and code to minimize this behaviour, just as we have always done offline. The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.

You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.

I’m not saying Sir Tim’s wrong, but what he wrote lacked punch, and the whole entry made my eyes glaze over.

However, Sir Tim did offer one ray of hope: “The Contract For The Web“: “This contract was launched in Lisbon at Web Summit, bringing together a group of people who agree we need to establish clear norms, laws and standards that underpin the web. Those who support it endorse its starting principles and together are working out the specific commitments in each area. No one group should do this alone, and all input will be appreciated. Governments, companies and citizens are all contributing, and we aim to have a result later this year.”

We Must Stop Racist Name Calling On The World Wide Web

In 2011, bugged by constant YouTube comments calling me the n-word on my Zennie62 on YouTube video channel pages, I took to the World Wide Web in the form of blog posts and video-blogs, to call for a stop.

In 2009, YouTube Partner Assistants, and other YouTube Partners, told me to basically just deal with the name calling because I would make money from it. Well, a system that creates an environment where I have to want to be cyber-abused should not be – I wasn’t having it.

It took four years, but I got my YouTube comments word filter.

Toward A Better And Happier World Wide Web

We have to have not just national but local civic rules for online engagement. City Councils can take up the fight here, passing resolutions that ban online hate speech. The time has come to stop this crap. That time is now. We can enlist the help of celebrities like Emma Thompson, who, at Davos in 2008, responded to my call to combat racism with this vlog:

I have not yet personally met Ms. Thompson to thank her. But I thank her.

Stay tuned.

And thanks, Sir Tim!

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