Tim Berners-Lee: web should be basis of democracy

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Tim Berners-Lee wants the internet to be for the people of the world, rather than simply a powerful instrument of corporate and government power. SALT profiles an idealistic genius

“I was working at CERN, I got permission in the end, after about a year or two, to basically do it as a side project. I wrote the code and was basically the first user. There was a lot of concern that people didn’t want to pick it up because it would be too complicated, but after a lot of persuasion, and a lot of wonderful collaboration with other people, bit by bit, it worked. It took off. It was pretty cool.”

Tim Berners-Lee was reminiscing about the time he “invented” the web. More accurately, he is reminiscing about the time in 1990 he created and implemented a hypertext system, which was able to manage data so that it was stored on a central information bank accessible from multiple computers. Networks had previously been used to send files and messages through cyberspace, but Berners-Lee’s addition provided a platform for the communal display of those files and messages, thus bringing about the notion of a website.

Samantha Weinberg of Eureka has stated in Intelligent Life that the world wide web is the greatest invention of all time. Both the Guardian and Forbes discussed her opinion at length, without concurring. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania made the more modest assertion in 2009 that the internet was the most important innovation of the previous 30 years. One thing everyone agrees on – the world wide web has revolutionized the way a significant proportion of the planet’s population experience their daily lives.

There are over 3,000,000,000 internet users in the world – about 40% of the human race. Almost half of those users are in Asia, with China housing 642 million of them. Weinberg, writing in Intelligent Life, gives fields transformed by the web: “Education, news, book publishing, music, finance, networking, dating, charity donations, shopping, language-learning, cartography, medicine, hypochondria, and the way we talk to friends.”

Berners-Lee was born in London in 1955 and studied Physics at Oxford University. Since then, he’s received another 17 honorary degrees from all over the world. During his time at Queen’s College, he built his first computer, using an old TV, a soldering iron, an M6800 processor, and TTL gates. His passion for invention was nurtured by experimenting with electromagnets as a child. His parents were both mathematicians in the computing field and still live in the house Tim once littered with homemade buzzers and magnetized transistors.

After Berners-Lee’s breakthrough at CERNE, the internet spread rapidly. By 2000, 5% of the world’s population were using the world wide web. By 2005 that number had increased to one billion, and reached its second billion by 2010. Recently, Berners-Lee’s focus has turned to the usage of the platform. He is concerned about the dangers of censoring it.

“Part of the deal with the web is that it’s just a transparent, neutral medium. I should be able to talk to you over it without worrying about what we in fact now know is happening – without worrying about the fact that not only will surveillance be happening, but it will be done by people who may abuse the data. So, in fact, we suddenly realized we can’t just use the web. We have to worry about what the underlying infrastructure of the whole thing is,” he said.

Social movement

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the use of the internet for mass surveillance by the NSA and the GCHQ prompted international outrage. Views were polarized about subjects such as privacy, counter-terrorism, and human rights. This October saw the publication of a UN report by Ben Emmerson QC, who concluded that, “There is an urgent need for states to revise national laws regulating modern forms of surveillance to ensure that these practices are consistent with international human rights law.”

‘We suddenly realized we can’t just use the web. We have to worry about what the underlying infrastructure of the whole thing is,’ Tim Berners-Lee

Berners-Lee has a deeply held and idealistic belief that the internet is a social movement for the people of the world, rather than an instrument for the use of corporations, or governments. “It’s the psychology of people wanting to be read that makes them make link to other good things,” he said in his 2009 TED talk. “The links themselves form this huge mass of critical review, which is how the Web works. It’s all about people – the system is a social, technical thing. It looks like you’re designing a new way two computers can talk across the internet, but really you’re designing a human system mediated by technology.”

His plea for “a Magna Carta for the web” is proving successful at www.webat25.org, where the public is invited to participate in founding a bill of rights. The idea is to strengthen the internet as a public platform, free of surveillance and theft of personal data. The need for immediate and clear legislation is obvious, he says.

“I love the fact that the web is open – anybody can talk to anybody and it doesn’t matter who we are. I want a web that is not fragmented into multiple pieces. A want a web which is a really good basis for democracy. I want a web where the other 60% get on board as fast as possible. I want a web which is such a powerful basis for innovation that when some disaster strikes we can respond to it very quickly. We must protest, and make sure internet censorship is cut down,” he said.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Payne on flickr

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