Warning: The BBC is over-reacting on the web’s future

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the World Wide Web, spoke recently about his worries about certain parts of the Internet. He is concerned that the web has been used to spread disinformation; he is worried that we can trust some parts of the web when we shouldn’t.

Today, the BBC is reporting his comments under the headline “Warning sounded on web’s future“, which rather makes it all sound very dramatic. In fact, all Sir Tim is saying is that he wants a labelling system which proves a web site’s trustworthiness.

A laudable idea, but it is bound to fail. Ever been to a “four star” hotel and received “one star” treatment? Ever booked an “approved” plumber who charged the earth, or failed to show up? Ever found a document stamped with the “Plain English” logo that was hard to understand?

There are dozens of “approval” systems which are designed to help us make decisions as to the voracity of claims. But each has its failings and we find, over time, that few systems are perfect. Indeed, doctors are vetted, approved, re-qualified and re-checked to help us be certain we have a good GP; tell that to Dr Shipman’s patients. It might be a great idea to have a logo on web sites saying it has been authenticated, but it still will not generate as much trustworthiness as Sir Tim might hope.

Equally, it couldn’t be a compulsory scheme as that would defy the openness of the web; as a result the only people who would use it are the very people we already trust. The BBC, for instance, has a huge reputation for trustworthiness and the world over people claim “it must be true, it was on the BBC”. So, the Beeb tells is that there is a “warning on the web’s future” – hardly; just a suggestion for a scheme to help us trust web sites. Do you get the impression the BBC is trying to attract readers?

A few months ago, I also read on the BBC a report of an article in the British Medical Journal which was about the doctor’s use of search engines. The BBC merely reported what the BMJ had provided in its press release – there was no balancing opposite view. And that was a serious error because the BMJ’s research was fundamentally flawed and showed a wholesale misunderstanding of the way search works. My trust in the BBC is being eroded as a result of poor reporting and headline writing.

Yet, my mistrust would exist even if they had the “web mark” for trustworthiness – which no doubt they would obtain with ease. And that’s the point – trust is developed out of experience, not some “approval” scheme.

For your web site it will be the same – people will trust your web site based on their experience with it. They will subconsciously “rate” you according to a host of different measures as to whether or not you can be trusted. True, there is a ton of garbage and misinformation on the Internet, but on the whole, we don’t trust it. And when we are unsure – as in my examples with the BBC – we refer back to our own experience and knowledge to check.

What this means for anyone running a business online is that you shouldn’t get distracted by aiming for approval schemes and “web marks”. Instead, let people use their experience to show whether they trust you. Which brings me rather neatly on to a request….!

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