Tim Berners-Lee: The Web's Brainchild
Interview by Ethirajan Anbarasan, first published by UNESCO's Courier, September 2000
A staunch idealist, the British inventor of the World Wide Web is worth more than his weight in gold. Tim Berners-Lee has shunned opportunities in the private sector to captain an international consortium grouping the Web's who's who. His foremost goal: to keep on improving the Web for the common good.
How do you account for the Web's formidable growth in the last 10 years?
The Web initially spread because of existing Internet infrastructure set up during the 1970s. By the time I had the idea for the Web at the end of the 80s, computers in many universities and institutes in the United States and in Europe were already connected to each other by cables exchanging information. So you have to give credit to those pioneers who put together such a network before the Web's arrival.
The Web spread fast because it was decentralized and no one was controlling its growth. The fact that anybody can start a server or run a browser, without having to register with any central authority, is what allowed it to grow rapidly. There were enthusiasts all over the world who realized what the world could be with the Web and directed their efforts at developing it.
Also the Web's openness is a powerful attraction. Everyone can not only read what's on the Web but can also contribute to it. Everybody is in a sense equal. This sense of boundless opportunity also led to its remarkable growth.
Does the Web stand to benefit those traditionally on the margins of technological innovation?
It is obvious that the present imbalance in society is unhealthy for the whole world. But do not look to innovations alone for solving global issues. It is for people to make decisions on how to manage themselves and it requires a lot of effort on all sides to solve various problems. We’ve had many tools in the past and Internet can be another tool in addressing those challenges.
The basic idea of the Web is that it is an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way, by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The Web is more of a social creation than a technical one. It has not changed anything fundamentally in the way human beings think, read and communicate with each other. It has given people greater choice than ever before by simply providing information. Advantages of the Web range from enhanced collaboration between people in different countries to reading a newspaper sitting in a remote village.
Though the Web has given us many choices, we still don’t know how to use those choices to our advantage. I hope the fact that each individual has more choice now will give us greater power to reformulate our society.
In your book Weaving the Web, you talk about the danger of the Web being controlled by a select group of companies or commercial deeds blocking its growth. What would the consequences be?
The danger is when large companies that sell computers and software effectively start to control what information you receive on the Internet. Companies which offer free computers or Web browsers could prevent a user from utilizing or accessing programmes of their commercial competitors. Even Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can have commercial deals with certain Web sites, making them easier to access than other sites. This is already starting to happen.
On the one hand, people feel it’s reasonable for a company to influence your Internet access if they provide you with free computers and software programmes. But on the other, it’s really important that the right of the individual to access unbiased information be upheld. The point is that one should not masquerade the other.
I’m not sure to what extent people realize or can measure whether their attempts to access different websites are being affected by commercial concerns. It’s also very difficult to find a balance between the right of a company to offer a service which is subsidized and the right of somebody to have unbiased access. We have yet to find a good social arrangement
Another danger is that if a company establishes a monopoly, it will start making arbitrary changes to universally accepted Web standards. This would force competitors to concentrate their efforts on matching these rather than coming out with new, bright ideas to improve the product. This would affect the Web’s overall development.
The Web has allowed a much greater flow of information which some countries are seeking to regulate and control. How do you react to this?
I know that some countries are contemplating or attempting to control information available to individuals on the Internet. My feeling is that it is very difficult to achieve because the Internet allows information to flow in many different ways. You are only a small hole in this vast system. In a way, controlling or regulating information is bad for the relationship between a government and the people and, in the long term, for the stability of the country.
There have also been calls for widespread censorship on the net. But in most of the Western world, censorship is a derogatory term for one body trying to control what information another body has access to. However, there is a growing recognition that parents have the right and the duty to protect their children from viewing undesirable sites. This led our Web Consortium to develop systems like the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) that enables adults to control children’s access to different websites.
The large number of filtering software tools on the market are more effective than government censorship. A nation’s laws can restrict content only in that country but filters can block content no matter where it comes from on the Web. Fundamentally, it is for the people to determine the type of social mechanisms and regulations that will benefit society.
There have been rising concerns over surfers’ privacy. How is this being tackled?
Privacy involves the ability of each person to dictate what can and cannot be done with his or her own personal information. For consumers using the Internet, the greatest privacy concern is that after they’ve ordered a number of products, companies will have accumulated enough personal information to harm or take advantage of them. With consequences ranging from junk mail to the denial of health insurance, the problem is serious.
There has been a spurt of Internet-related patents in recent years. What effect are these having on the Web’s development?
The awarding of Internet-related patents poses a danger to the Web’s universality and can kill good ideas. There was a widely held assumption in the Web’s first five years that a common good was to be gained from putting together a far-reaching infrastructure. Now a huge amount of business is being done on the Web. The ability to control any part of it through patent claims will be very lucrative. In some cases businesses may be able to gain money simply by threatening to take legal action. This has a dampening effect on people working together to create a universal Web.
For example, people in the WWW profession meet often to discuss technological improvements and innovations, from improved graphic or video conferencing systems to ways of wiring the developing world. These projects have the potential to benefit many people but are sometimes suddenly abandoned because of fears or rumours of legal action from a company having patent claims to that technology. Currently, in the U.S. (unlike in many other countries), it is possible to patent part of the way a programme does something.
Some of the recent Internet-related patent awards have been derided by the Web community. They are effectively restricting the use of technologies that could expand the use and universality of the Internet. I hope that very soon patents will only be considered valid if they represent a real novelty or a really bright idea. I have yet to see a patent like this in the field.
There is no way to judge the authenticity or reliability of information on the Web, making users highly vulnerable. Is this likely to change?
We are not using all the technology available to verify the authenticity of a website or a person you come across. More advanced tools will soon be introduced. With the help of new browsers and by using digital signatures, you will soon be able to actually ensure that the document or the website you are referring to was in fact generated by its claimed author. With regard to electronic messages, new and secure communication protocols allow us to make sure that nobody can sneak in and alter a message along its way.
Now the question is how do you know whether a particular document or person you come across while surfing on the net is reliable. You just can’t do that. There is no infrastructure set up at the moment by which you can actually check the reliability of a person or of a site you are visiting. Why should you believe in somebody about whom you have never heard of? I think people will have to learn whom they can trust on the Web.
Take a book for example. You read it because it was referred to you by reliable sources. In the same way somebody you know may point to a web site. Trust is always transferred from one individual to another. We have to set up a “Web of trust.”
Some people initially thought of the Web as an anonymous space separated from reality in which there was no individual responsibility. This is not the case. Anyone who sends a fraudulent message is sitting somewhere and is naturally subjected to local laws. If someone makes forged transactions, the fact that they did it electronically doesn’t in anyway absolve them of their responsibility under the law.
Thanks to the Web, the world has become a global village. But we have recently witnessed a rising incidence of hackers paralyzing public utility systems with viruses. Can systems become more resilient?
While the Internet is a decentralized system, I think the principle danger it faces now is the lack of diversity in the tools we use to access it. If you analyze the recent virus attacks, you’ll find it’s computers running the same software produced by the same company that are usually coming under attack by hackers. While it’s advantageous to have many people running the same software, there is a need for alternative types of products in order to build up resistance to virus attacks.
There have been proposals that Internet users in developed countries be taxed in order to wire the rest of the world?
I do think that the developed world owes a great debt to the developing one and Internet access adds one line to that debt. However, it is not obvious whether taxing all Internet users in general is a smart idea. It has to be done on a selective basis. I feel that those who can afford large amounts of Internet access—those for instance who are in position to get videos-on-demand or use the Web extensively for commercial purposes—can be taxed.
One could also argue that introducing a tax might discourage some countries from investing in the Internet, which is developing so rapidly right now. The only place where you could give serious thought to a tax is the U.S., and perhaps Finland. Other developed countries, which are trying to catch up with the U.S., may be a bit reluctant to introduce taxation.
It is still difficult to get an Internet connection in the South because of the lack of telephone lines. Are there solutions to this?
Telecommunications departments in many developing countries are still bureaucratic and would never agree to sharing anything with anybody or to allow any competition that would improve access. One option is to rethink the technology altogether. We should start off by expanding the use of wireless technologies for basic communications in rural areas. Once networks have been built up, walkie-talkies could eventually be merged with the Internet without any input from telecommunication ministries. The system would be a decentralized one in which there would be no need to apply for an Internet address or a domain name. Research is already going on in this field and I strongly feel that commercial production of this technology should start soon to expand Internet access in Southern countries.
However, it may be difficult for this technology to be deployed in some countries because it would threaten the existing monopoly of telecommunication companies or government control over communications. The United Nations could play a role in spreading the idea among its member States as this technology offers very exciting possibilities.
I also think subsidies should be put towards translating information on the Internet into different languages. It is important that the Web support local cultures and not just broadcast American culture. Even in European countries, it was difficult for the Web to get started because you didn’t have a huge monoculture or monolingual audience waiting everywhere. Getting over this barrier in countries with smaller linguistic audiences will be very difficult.
Could you elaborate on the “Semantic Web” you are working on at the moment?
My dream for the Web has two parts. In the first, I see the Web becoming a much more powerful means for collaboration among people. In the second, collaborations extend to computers. Machines become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the contents, links and transactions between people and computers.
The Semantic Web would be able to take information from different databases on the Web, from catalogues and weather sites to stock price information, and to allow this data to be processed by computers. At the moment, this cannot be done because the data available on the Web is not in a form that can be understood or converted by computers for direct analysis. This is because the Web pages are designed only for human readership.
The Semantic Web would also answer many people’s prayers for a logical search engine that gives you solid results. Right now, search engines come up with thousands of Web pages in response to a request. It is impossible to search what’s in all those pages. With the Semantic Web, the search engine would go out and say “Well, here is an object which I can mathematically prove to you matches the criteria requested.” In short, search engines will become more meaningful and effective. Once the two-part dream is achieved, the Web will be a place where the whim of a human being and the reasoning of a machine will co-exist in an ideal, powerful mixture.
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector