The architecture of trust

Tim Berners-Lee tells the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson that the internet — and blogs — are in danger of being overrun by bad actors:

But he warns that “there is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way”. He singles out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continuing development of the web, because of the risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and uncheckable information.

Sir Tim believes devotees of blogging sites take too much information on trust: “The blogging world works by people reading blogs and linking to them. You’re taking suggestions of what you read from people you trust. That, if you like, is a very simple system, but in fact the technology must help us express much more complicated feelings about who we’ll trust with what.” The next generation of the internet needs to be able to reassure users that they can establish the original source of the information they digest.

I think this comes down to identity and trust. But I also don’t think the internet can necessarily be much better at this than the real world. Hucksters, scammers, spammers, flacks, and various nefarious liars can come after us on the street, in the mail, on TV, via faxes, on the phone, and now online. Sadly, we have to be on guard against them everywhere. Information is one weapon; the more we can know about them, the better we are and the internet does allow us to gather information and gang up on the bad guys; that’s how spam filters work, albeit damned imperfectly. Identity is the next weapon; the more we know about you, the more we know whether to trust you. I’m not suggesting outlawing anonymity, but I will say again that I must distrust those I can’t identify and the anonymous have to know that is a consequence of their hiding their identities. So I thing Sir Tim’s invention can possibly improve on systems in the real world — it can be a bit better — but there will always be another scumbucket lurking around the corner, looking to exploit any opening. That doesn’t destroy the internet anymore than it destroys the mails. It means we need to find the means to manage it as best we can.

: LATER: Thanks to James in the comments, we see Berners-Lee making clear he wasn’t intending to play chicken little and bash blogs. And he does it on his blog.

  • Yes, the Internet is nothing else than the mirror of our world.
    Virtual reality looks so much like real reality.
    It’s like Religion, you can smell by far it was made by men.

    “The next generation of the internet needs to be able to reassure users that they can establish the original source of the information they digest.”
    It will never be possible.
    If they can hack the information, they can also hack the source of the information.
    And I would even suggest that it would be extremely dangerous to reassure users of something nobody can do.
    You would create dangerous believes.
    It’s better to know nothing is certain, nothing can be 100% reliable, so you just take it as it is.
    Anyway people believe what they want and like to believe, that is what our society is based on.
    To create an effective commercial, a good market product you can promise anything as long as it is feasible…
    And then, if you do not fulfill what you promised…it was just a commercial…
    I do not think “devotees of blogging sites take too much information on trust”, as they do not take too much information on trust from any other mean.
    And then:
    an idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it…

  • Isn’t providing the appearance of a trusted source the whole issue behind the Edelman fiasco?

    The idea was to make a phony event seem like a real one. This is the essence of all advertising. Actors in white jackets pretending to some authority on whatever medical nostrum they are promoting, or “testimonials” from actresses on the efficacy of some cosmetic product.

    What has happened is that using an interlocking set of outlets (TV, the web, print media, etc.) stories can be spread much more quickly than before. A trivial incident like the Kerry flub can be turned into a fire storm in a few hours, and even when it dies down it leaves a residue in the minds of those who were exposed to it. Corrective stories never have the same legs as the original reporting and thus the potential for misinformation has increased.

    There seem to be lots of gullible bloggers, what is different is that instead of quietly believing what they heard as before they now have the ability to spread the story themselves.

  • As a journalist who blogs I must say that there is no reason why blogs should be more unreliable than MSM. For my blog, which partly functions as an aggregator of Scandinavian news, I often rely on reports from MSM, and one of my first lessons here was to be very careful with how I phrase things when I do, ’cause MSM is often prone to both errors and overstatements. That has especially been the case when I’ve blogged about the Scandinavian freesheet wars (like in most ‘wars’ they’ve been swamped with spin and rumours).

    In any kind of media environment, be it the blogosphere or MSM, you either choose your sources according to where you are most likely to get the most reliable and best sourced stories, or where you get the most outrageous or fun spin, depending on your preferences. For accuracy I’d definently choose The Financial Times over The Sun, but for a fun, audacious or saucy angle def. the latter – likewise, there are blogs I read for fun, and those I read to keep up-to-date in my field or on issues that interest me.

  • ZF

    The web has been and still is America’s latest incarnation of the Wild West. A frontier zone populated initially by lone explorers, and then by a growing population of people who could look after themselves, both on a technical level and because there really weren’t enough marks or money around to attract urban crooks. The families, farmers, towns and the need for sheriffs and courts came later.

    We could bemoan the likelihood that disorder and lawlessness on the web will bring down the rest of society (and Berners-Lee may well do so – it’s something British people typically take up after they get a ‘Sir’ in front of their names), but that has never been the impact of the frontier on America. Instead frontier zones have been places for successive generations of creative young people to escape the suffocating rule-making and political correctness of their elders, make a life and express values which are their own, and participate in building new institutions rather than just receiving them from their elders. These new institutions have always end up re-establishing order.

    The two big frontier zones accessible to today’s generation of Americans are the web and the newer, vast (politically Republican) suburbs, where young people go to have families and escape urban political machines and urban public schools. In this sense the ‘culture wars’ we see today are directly linked to the past, all the way back to the conflicts between the first and second generations of the ‘Pilgrim fathers’.

  • MSM Doubter

    Trust and identity problems will have to be resolved before web publishing can be considered trustworthy. Web pages *can* be fairly reliably verified, at least as to the server publishing them. The same may become necessary for bloggers to be believed.
    The “material” world hasn’t really solved this problem, or the multitudes would not have been so easily convinced of the current administration’s assertions about Iraq. Could be that life is about seeking ‘truth’ … if one is interested.

  • ZF

    Berners-Lee has apparently now said that his comments were misreported to make them sound more alarmist by what he hilariously described as the ‘normally reliable’ reporters and editors at the BBC and the Guardian.

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  • More information and more internetworked-information does not lead to more trustworthy information. It is not only about trust and identity because the more people retell a story the more versions of “the one truth” will exist.

  • It seems that we’ve forgotten life before the internet. In order to have information/news, it was necessary to read and view the news constantly, looking for any reaction or disagreement with what you had read, and research was difficult, which is why pundits became the institutiond they still remain. The pundits did the compilations for you, the talk shows and the 60 Minutes’ were the fount of wisdom. It’s only because we can rapidly access and compare a multitude of sources that we can be more knowledgeable and more on top of things now. I just did a post at a blog I cohost, and I accessed ten or more solid pieces of background info which I then linked to in the text where I passed on their pieces of input into the article as a whole. If you like later today you can read at cabdrollery the trepidation I have about the last throes of consolidated industry favoritism in our government.

  • James

    Tim uses his own blog to clarify what he said.

    In a recent interview with the Guardian, alas, my attempt to explain this was turned upside down into a “blogging is one of the biggest perils” message. Sigh.

    And, fortunately, we have blogs. We can publish what we actually think, even when misreported.