Companies and governments “trying to take control of the internet” are undermining the founding principles of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned.
The inventor of the World Wide Web said the internet is facing a “major” threat from “people who want to control it on the sly” through “worrying laws” such as SOPA, the US anti-piracy act, and through the actions of internet giants.
“If you can control [the internet], if you can start tweaking what people say, or intercepting communications, it’s very, very powerful…it’s the sort of power that if you give it to a corrupt government, you give them the ability to stay in power forever.”
Sir Tim was speaking as it emerged that the US government has been collecting huge amounts of personal information from Google, Facebook, Apple and other internet companies.
There have also been reports that British spies have been gathering intelligence from the internet giants “through a covertly run operation set up by America’s top spy agency”
“Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society,” Sir Tim said. “I call on all web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data.
“Over the last two decades, the web has become an integral part of our lives. A trace of our use of it can reveal very intimate personal things. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”
Sir Tim added that a “wake up call” had been delivered when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cut off communications services during the uprising that ousted him.
“A lot of people thought the internet was like the air, it just flows. [After this] people asked, ‘who could turn off my internet’?”
Sir Tim said “companies and governments in different places all over the world trying to take control of the internet in different ways” is a much bigger threat to its development than fears over any one company having an online monopoly.
“If you remember [web browser] Netscape, people thought, oh the web is great but here’s a completely controlling web company, what are we going to do? Then one morning they weren’t worried about Netscape any more, it was Microsoft. Then suddenly, wait a moment the browser wasn’t the issue, it was the search engine. Then, it’s wait a moment, it’s the social network.
“If you look at it broadly, yes a monopoly slows innovation, reduces competition. That’s why it’s important this is an open platform. But monopolies come and go all the time.”
Sir Tim called for governments to protect the neutrality and independence of the web and compared its democratic importance to the freedom of the press.
He said “organisations that keep the internet running” should be “connected to government but at arms length. That’s really important and as years have gone by that’s got more and more important. Once you have an open internet, with an open world wide web on top of it, I’m very optimistic”.
Sir Tim was speaking in Monte Carlo at the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition. He likened the determination he needed when developing the web to the single mindedness exhibited by successful entrepreneurs.
“With the web, it was a paradigm shift. It’s a well used phrased but it means that afterwards the world is so different, there weren’t the words in the old word to describe the new world. People didn’t understand clicks and links and web pages – we didn’t have words.
“You just need to stick with it and work with a few people with in a twinkle in their eye because they get it. Some people will respond with excitement – not everybody, maybe three in three hundred will get it. The web took off because a few people around the world had the twinkle in their eye and said they could understand what it would be like if all the information in the world was [online].”
He added that while about “25pc of the world” now uses the web, “a massive gap” remains. “There are number of languages where there isn’t a lot of stuff on the web, and a lot of culture that isn’t represented. A lot of countries haven’t got the backbone for a good internet-based democracy.
“The change for the world will be massive when we go from only 20pc of the world having it to 80pc of the world. It is going to be a wonderful explosion in culture and participation and I hope that people of different cultures use it to understand each other as a result.”