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Inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee: The Web Should Reflect Human Rights

Rafe Needleman
Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech
March 12, 2014

AUSTIN — The World Wide Web celebrates its 25th birthday March 12, 2014. And there’s nobody better to discuss that milestone than the man who invented the web’s protocols, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (yes, he’s been knighted).

In this interview, conducted at SXSW this week, Sir Tim and I discuss where the idea of the web came from and what inspiration he took from previous systems and ideas.

As Berners-Lee points out, many people pushed back on the idea at first. While the Internet existed 25 years ago, people were still information and systems hoarders. They didn’t, at first, see the advantage of exposing all their data to the world.

But why did Berners-Lee make entering web addresses so clunky? He explains what the “http://” in front of every web address means and why it was important in the early days.

The web at 25, Berners-Lee says, is like a young adult. It’s independent, a thing unto itself. It has rights, though, and responsibilities. Berners-Lee also thinks the web should reflect accurately the rights (and responsibilities) of all who use it. “There are certain rights that should be more enshrined,” he says.

He notes that the web can be a tool for both freedom and oppression. “Some countries use the web to take power away from citizens, to spy on them,” he says. He notes that corporate control of the web, or of laws that affect it, can be “very bad for the web.” Corporate-sponsored laws that restrict information flow will continue to pop up, he predicts.

Berners-Lee said that, 25 years ago, he had no idea the web would be so important and so influential in the growth of business and society. He’d like to see engineers use more of their social intelligence to “build websites that will be used to interact with people from other cultures, to combat xenophobia and ignorance.”

But what really dismays Berners-Lee is the growth of spam email. “It’s a waste of bandwidth and time,” he says.

Looking to the future, Berners-Lee is excited about the switch from static web pages to sites that can be programmed just like a computer. “That’s a massive change,” he says. It’s leading to real-time communication among web pages, and a new way of “making powerful things.”

In the next 25 years, Berners-Lee would like to see the web give people control over where their data is stored. And, of course, to making sure that the underlying infrastructure is free and that it supports, not hinders, people’s rights.