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‘Let us build the Web we want’ – Berners-Lee

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This open letter sent out by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee on 12 March 2017 calls on Internet users to stand up to fake news, loss of privacy and unethical advertising.

Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.

1)   We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governmentsare also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers came arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.

2)   It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.

3)   Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawingupon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of
adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?

These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data
control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We
must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook
to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.

Our team at the Web Foundation will be working on many of these issues as part of our new five year strategy – researching the problems in more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all. I urge you to support our work however you can – by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies an  governments or by making a donation. We’ve also compiled a directory  of other digital rights organisations around the world for you to explore and consider supporting too.

I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who haveprotested in the streets. In the past year, we have seen Nigerians stand up to a social media bill that would have hampered free expression online, popular outcry and protests at regional internet shutdowns in Cameroon and great public support for net neutrality in both India and the European Union.

It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.  If you would like to be more involved, then do join our mailing list, do contribute to us, do join or donate to any of the organisations which are working on these issues around the world.

– Sir Tim Berners-Lee

* For more information, visit http://webfoundation.org/2017/03/web-turns-28-letter. Internet users are also asked by the World Wide Web Foundation to share this letter on Twitter using the hashtag #HappyBirthdayWWW

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Samsung unleashes the beast

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Most new smartphone releases of the past few years have been like cat-and-mouse games with consumers and each other. It has been as if morsels of cheese are thrown into the box to make it more interesting: a little extra camera here, a little more battery there, and incremental changes to size, speed (more) and weight (less). Each change moves the needle of innovation ever-so-slightly. Until we find ourselves, a few years later, with a handset that is revolutionary compared to six years ago, but an anti-climax relative to six months before.

And then came Samsung. Probably stung by the “incremental improvement” phrase that has become almost a cliché about new Galaxy devices, the Korean giant chose to unleash a beast last week.

The new Galaxy Note 9 is not only the biggest smartphone Samsung has ever released, but one of the biggest flagship handsets that can still be called a phone. With a 6.4” display, it suddenly competes with mini-tablets and gaming consoles, among other devices that had previously faced little contest from handsets.

It offers almost ever cutting edge introduced to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones earlier this year, including the market-leading f1.5 aperture lens, and an f2.4. telephoto lens, each weighing in at 12 Megapixels. The front lens is equally impressive, with an f1.7 aperture – first introduced on the Note 8 as the widest yet on a selfie camera.

So far, so S9. However, the Note range has always been set apart by its S Pen stylus, and each edition has added new features. Born as a mere pen that writes on screens, it evolved through the likes of pressure sensitivity, allowing for artistic expression, and cut-and-paste text with translation-on-the-fly.

(Click here or below to read more about the Samsung Galaxy S Pen stylus) Samsung Galaxy S9 Features)

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SA ride permit system ‘broken’

Despite the amendments to the National Land Transport Act, ALON LITS, General Manager, Uber in Sub Saharan Africa, believes that many premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

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The spirit and intention of the amendments to the National Land Transport Act No 5  (NLTA), 2009 put forward by the Ministry of Transport are to be commended. It is especially pleasing that these amendments include ridesharing and e-hailing operators and drivers as legitimate participants in the country’s public transport system, which point to government’s willingness to embrace the changes and innovation taking place in the country’s transport industry.

However, there are aspects of the proposed amendments that are, at best, premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

Of particular concern are the significant financial penalties that will need to be paid by ridesharing and e-hailing companies whose independent operators are found to be transporting passengers without a legal permit issued by the relevant local authority. These fines can be as high as R100 000 per driver operating without a permit. Apart from being an excessive penalty it is grossly unfair given that a large number of local authorities don’t yet have functioning permit issuing systems and processes in place.

The truth is that the operating permit issuance system in South Africa is effectively broken. The application and issuance processes for operating licenses are fundamentally flawed and subject to extensive delays, sometimes over a year in length.  This situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is very difficult for applicants whose permit applications haven’t yet been approved to get reasons for the extensive delays on the issuing of those permits.

Uber has had extensive first-hand experience with the frustratingly slow process of applying for these permits, with drivers often having to wait months and, in some cases more than a year, for their permits.

Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency amongst local authorities to prioritise fixing the flawed permit issuing systems and processes or address the large, and growing, backlogs of permit applications. As such, in order for the proposed stringent permit enforcement rules to be effective and fair to all role players, the long-standing issues around permit issuance first need to be addressed. At the very least, before the proposed legislation amendments are implemented, the National Transport Ministry needs to address the following issues:

  1. Efficient processes and systems must be put in place in all local authorities to allow drivers to easily apply for the operating permits they require
  2. Service level agreements need to be put in place with local authorities whereby they are required to assess applications and issue permits within the prescribed 60-day period.
  3. Local authorities need to be given deadlines by which their current permit application backlogs must be addressed to allow for faster processing of new applications once the amendments are promulgated.

If the Transport Ministry implements the proposed legislation amendments before ensuring that these permit issuance challenges are addressed, many drivers will be faced with the difficult choice of either having to operate illegally whilst awaiting their approved permits and risking significant fines and/or arrest, or stopping operations until they receive their permits, thereby losing what is, for many of them, their only source of income.

As such, if the Ministry of Transport is not able to address these particular challenges, it is only reasonable to ask it to reconsider this amendment and delay its implementation until the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure it does not impact negatively on the country’s transport industry. The legislators must have been aware of the challenges of passing such a significant law, as the Amendment Bill allows for the Minister to use his discretion to delay implementation of provisions for up to 5 years.

Fair trade and healthy competition are the cornerstones of any effective and growing economy. However, these clauses (Section 66 (7) and Section 66A) of the NLTA amendment, as well as the proposal that regulators be given authority to define the geographic locations or zones in which vehicles may operate, are contrary to the spirit of both. As a good corporate citizen, Uber is committed to supplementing and enhancing South Africa’s national transport system and contributing positively to the industry. If passed into law without the revisions suggested above, these new amendments will limit our business and many others from playing the supportive roles we all can, and should, in growing the SA transport and tourism industries as well as many other key economic sectors.

What’s more, if passed as they currently stand, the amendments will effectively limit South African consumers from having full access to the range of convenient transport options they deserve; which has the potential to harm the reputation and credibility of the entire transport industry.

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