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Thursday, 23 February 2012

How to measure a website's IQ

Article by: Tom Simonite, online technology editor





The creator of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee , has made an odd request : for a kind of rating system to help people distinguish sites that can be trusted to tell the truth, and those that can't.

Berners-Lee was speaking at the launch of the World Wide Web Foundation , which aims to ensure that everyone in the world benefits as the web evolves.

In his speech he referred to the way fears that the LHC could destroy the worldspread like wildfire online. As the BBC puts it , he explained that "there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources."

He went on to say that he didn't think "a simple number like an IQ rating" is a good idea: "I'd be interested in different organisations labelling websites in different ways". Whatever process is used to hand out the labels, it sounds like a bad idea to me.

Berners-Lee himself directed us towards some of the its biggest problems:
"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable...A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."
There are plenty of arguments online already about whether Scientology is a cult. I find it unlikely anyone will be keen to step in and label sites on either side as not to be trusted. Others might reasonably argue that all religions - whether established or not - should come with a warning message.

As for wading in to put a stop to conspiracy theories, I can't image anything their proponents could benefit from more.

Berners-Lee also mentioned the system would help people find out the real science behind, for example, the LHC's risks. You might think handing out rating for sites about science would be easier, with publishers of peer-reviewed science, for example, receiving a top rating without problems.

But there will be papers in the archives of any journal that have been entirely superseded. And a whole lot more that present results that are valid, but can be misleading to some readers. Web licences to ensure that people only read sites they can handle are the next logical step.

Fortunately it's much more likely that the whole idea will quietly be forgotten, which will at least prevent Berners-Lee receiving one of the first "potentially misleading" badges for thinking it up in the first place.

Let's hope the World Wide Web Foundation  and its laudable goals have a rosier future.

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