Social media sites laughing all the way to the bank at our expense, says STEPHEN POLLARD

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (Image: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty)

There is no aspect of modern living that hasn’t been transformed by the internet. In many ways that has been a huge boon. From the vast amount of knowledge available at the click of a search through to the breakthroughs in convenience and accessibility the internet has engendered, it is difficult to argue that in this respect we are not the luckiest generation in human history. 

But there is also a dark and devastating side to it. 

Whether it’s the shocking impact of cyber bullying and the sick paedophiles who prey on children online, to the impact of fake news and social media on public life, the web has had an equal impact for the worse. 

Yesterday Sir Tim launched a campaign to address the problems created by his invention, with a Contract for the Web designed to get governments, companies and individuals to commit to protect the web from abuse and ensure it benefits humanity, as he intended. 

Eighty organisations such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook have signed the contract. 

Signatories commit to nine principles, such as making the internet available for everyone and respecting online privacy. 

Who wouldn’t agree? 

Well, so far neither Amazon nor Twitter has signed up. 

Rightly, Sir Tim says that “people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater”. 

He went on: “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.” 

This is spot on. 

And no one should decry his efforts to address this. 

But for all that, there is not a shred of evidence the biggest tech companies will ever act voluntarily to stop abuse of the web. 

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how Facebook can be a signatory to the contract given its behaviour. 

Last week, the actor Sacha Baron-Cohen, below, gave a devastating speech in which he decried social media companies as “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories”, outlining how they actively refuse to remove hate speech from their sites. 

As he put it: “If you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.” 

Fake news has now become something of cliché, but this phrase that didn’t even exist until recently is a blight on all our lives. 

Democracy itself is endangered by the rise of what we should really call deliberate lies. 

Sacha Baron-Cohen

Sacha Baron-Cohen decried social media companies as a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories (Image: LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty)

Whether it’s the anti-vaxxers who use social media to spread their entirely fictional claims about the dangers of vaccination or the state-sponsored, organised interference in our politics by countries like Russia, the tech companies are not merely complicit – their extraordinary financial success depends in large measure on such behaviour. 

And the most we seem willing to do about any of this is to ask them to sign up to a code of conduct. 

They must be laughing all the way to the bank. 

As for the biggest of them all – the phrase “don’t be evil” was, famously, once part of Google’s code of conduct. 

Its senior staff would trot it out as an example of how they were committed to making the world a better place. 

Donald Trump

Donald Trump has been the victim of fake news (Image: Getty)

But last year it quietly dropped the phrase from its code. 

One would like to think it was embarrassed by it, but the titans at the top of the main tech companies appear to have no sense of shame. 

Just a few weeks ago, for example, Google was found to have acquired the personal health records of 50 million Americans without their consent. 

Don’t be evil, indeed. 

Sir Tim deserves praise for his attempt to deal with the dark side of his astonishing invention. 

But we are long past the need for concerted, co-ordinated international action to tackle these companies which behave as though they are our masters, rather than the reverse. 

It is easy to think that they are already beyond control. 

They are not. 

And we need to remember that. 

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