Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the hyperlinked World Wide Web, isn’t entirely happy with what he has helped create — and has thrown down the gauntlet to web developers to come up with more disruptive forms of online communication that can break down cultural not just geographical barriers.
Talking about the web as it is today, rather than the “collaborative tool” he originally designed, he said: “World peace has not miraculously occurred. People still mainly talk to their neighbours, people still mainly talk to the people who have the same religion, and the same culture, so for all its breaking down geographical boundaries in principle it hasn’t really broken down cultural boundaries. Can we develop systems on the web which will actually help solve that sort of challenge?”
Berners-Lee was speaking in an interview at the World Economic Forum today, entitled ‘what’s wrong with social networking?’ but he joked the title had been cooked up merely to draw in the crowds.
“As a universal platform the web wasn’t supposed to dictate what you did with it,” he told his audience in Davos. “The world wide web is a platform and humanity does what it can with it… There’s lots of people who think we could do more. What do we really want to get out of this web thing? What do we really want to get out of human communication?”
While it began as a collaborative tool, the web subsequently took off as a publishing medium — or it did to a “certain extent”, said Berners-Lee, pointing to the fact that publishing online remains a relatively elite activity and therefore, again, does not live up to his original collaborative vision for a truly global web.
“We’ve got wikis, we’ve got blogs, but still most people… aren’t publishing on the web. And actually when you go to most places you’re not in a position where you can take place in the conversation very much. Sometimes you can comment but actually the comment tends to be at a second level,” he said.
Asked about the erosion of online openness threatened by walled garden social networks, Berners-Lee said the networks both help humanity by providing the data that enables computers to help people but also highlighted how there is “a lot of frustration, from a lot of people” that they can’t connect up the personal data they have entered into different services in all the ways they might like to.
“Each of these social network systems is a silo so there is a frustration that I’ve told it all my data but I don’t have access to that,” he said.
Despite yearning for more openness and fewer shackles stifling the free flow of online data, Berners-Lee was careful to say he was not calling for an online data free-for-all. There do need to be “reasonable boundaries”, he accepted — whether it’s sensitive personal or government or military data. “The web isn’t about just sharing everything, destroying privacy… [but] if I want to share something with you it shouldn’t be the technology that gets in the way.”
Turning to the economic argument, Berners-Lee conceded there is a problem with current online business models — especially when it comes to finding ways to pay musicians. The web should be “about spreading culture, music and getting payment back to musicians”, he said. ” We’ve got to find new ways of doing that.”
Specifically he called for new protocols to be developed to support online payments. “We need to find a whole lot of new business models — I think we should develop new payment protocols so that when you’re using a web browser it’s a lot easier to pay for things.”
He also argued for the economic value in opening up data that is unnecessarily locked away, pointing to a U.K. initiative to open up government data so that the citizens who have paid for the data to be created in the first place can have the benefit of using it — and use it to create new businesses. “You’re making a great common good, that’s making the world run more efficiently,” he argued.
Likewise, he argued that the benefit to humanity of opening up scientific data — to “scientists everywhere” — would be “huge”. “It’s a question of unlocking this potential that we really already have — it’s getting huge benefit for very little cost,” he said.
Berners-Lee was also asked about Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was arrested for downloading academic journals and subsequently committed suicide — and argued that Swartz’s tragedy is an example of what can happen when “legislation gets too strong”.
“He was an incredibly ethical person. He thought a huge amount about what was right and how the world should be… but because [the FBI] saw that what he was doing was accessing a computer system there seems to be a deep suspicion of that,” he said.
“He used his programming to try to make a point, in a way as a protest. But they ended up using a very unfair law which had been changed from its original form which said that if you break into a computer system in any way then you are guilty of a felony… People are thinking now about that law, and there already proposals to change it.”
“To be a hacker — when I use the term — is somebody who is creative and does wonderful things,” Berners-Lee added. “We need more coders, we need more people who understand how to put data online.”