"This week, we celebrate what many consider the 50th birthday of the Internet. The underpinnings of the World Wide Web originated in an American communications network built for national defense and the pursuit of knowledge: ARPANET. Funded by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the network was designed so that scientists could share computer hardware, software and data.
It worked. In the ensuing decades, the ARPANET, and after the 1980s, the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), did indeed allow scientists to collaboratively build knowledge around networked tools and information. But expanding access to the Internet, combined with looser government regulations, ultimately produced a situation no one foresaw or intended. On today’s Internet, conspiracy theories run rampant, identities can be faked and our real-life elections are vulnerable to manipulation. A network designed for spreading truth became a profit-driven industry, a public sphere that threatens to undermine the public good.
None of this has prevented scientists - the Internet’s original users - from continuing to build reliable knowledge based on networked data and computational tools. The scientific community has time-tested processes to validate and protect the information it shares. But the general public is in a more precarious position. Anyone can be a publisher online, and the obvious clues to legitimacy that came with print and broadcast media - the investment in reporting and fact-checking, obligations to paying customers, an identifiable organization that could be held liable for false content - can be absent or faked online. The same type of user profiling that stimulates business also enables bad actors to target inflammatory social issues and widen political divides. We have inadvertently created a culture where misinformation can be spread without accountability."
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