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Summary:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the web 20 years ago next month, says there are threats to the freedom of the web all around us, and we need to fight them in the same way we fight to protect our freedoms in the real world.

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The web has worked its way into most of our lives to such an extent that it’s easy to take it for granted, and to forget what an incredible resource it is, or the powerful things that it allows us to do as a society. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the man who created the web 20 years ago next month, on his desktop computer in Geneva — says there are threats to the freedom of the web all around us, and that we need to fight them in the same way we fight to protect our freedoms in the real world.

Where are those online threats coming from? Berners-Lee says, “large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web,” in what appears to be a clear reference to Facebook’s walled-garden approach to sharing things like the email addresses of its users, and he later mentions Facebook specifically as “a silo.” The other potential threats, he says, include wireless Internet providers who are “being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals,” and also governments — totalitarian and democratic alike — who are “monitoring people’s online habits [and] endangering important human rights.”

The father of the web even takes what appears to be a thinly veiled shot at Apple, saying if the trends he’s describing toward more closed environments on the web aren’t checked, “we could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want [and] the ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.” Later in the piece, he mentions Apple specifically as one of the companies that doesn’t support open linking to things like songs within iTunes. He says most magazine iPad apps are “closed worlds” because they also fail to allow for links or sharing of content.

In some ways, Berners-Lee’s list of threats to the open web sound very much like the recent Wired magazine piece entitled “The Web is Dead,” which also looked at the rise of apps and the move towards AOL-style walled gardens. Wired’s piece got some criticism from many (including me) because it seemed to be overly negative, especially since much of what the magazine described as non-web — smartphone apps and so on — still depends on web protocols, even if they are hidden from view. But Berners-Lee echoes Wired’s concerns about large players controlling access to information in various ways.

Others have raised similar warning flags about potential threats to the open web from giant information quasi-monopolies such as Google, Facebook and Apple — including Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” and warns in his recent book The Master Switch that instead of a monument to the open market, the Internet is starting to look “like a Monopoly board,” and that the Internet may even tend to favor monopolies.

Not everyone agrees, however, that Google or Facebook are actually monopolies in any kind of legal sense, although they are definitely dominant players. And while Google is clearly a web giant, Yahoo and AOL were once web giants too, and they are shadows of their former selves now, displaced by completely new players. Even Facebook, which is now seen as one of the companies to be afraid of, is threatened in many ways by Twitter — a startup that barely even existed a few years ago and is now reportedly valued at close to $3 billion.

That said, it’s worth being reminded that large players often see it as being in their interests to restrict the freedom of their users, and that — as Berners-Lee warns in his Scientific American piece — this can chip away at the web’s core principles, which he says revolve around “a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere.” If that becomes circumscribed by the companies controlling the flow of that information, he says, “the Web could be broken into fragmented islands.” Why should we care about these potential incursions into the open web? Berners-Lee says:

Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

More critical to free speech than any other medium? That’s a strong claim — but there’s certainly an argument to be made that the web fits that definition. The ability to send information to anyone, to link to content wherever it exists, and to publish almost instantly seems so commonplace now that we forget how important it is, in almost exactly the same way democracy itself is important. It’s good to be reminded, and Tim Berners-Lee is certainly the one who is best equipped to do so.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Jonatas Cunha

  1. If Prof Berners Lee believes that the Web is vital to democracy, then he needs to explain why democracy predated the Web by two and a half thousand years. My rule of thumb is that whenever people start comparing their invention to democracy, then it is safe to assume that they have lost the plot. It’s not even clear that the Athenians would have recognised a self-selecting elite as having any connection whatever to democracy, let alone being its self-appointed guardians.

    What we can say with surety is that the Web is vital to cybercrime. That is Prof Berners Lee true legacy. Worse still is that there were plenty of cybersecurity experts around in the 1980′s, any of whom I am sure would have been happy to advise him, but he deliberately chose to ignore their accumulated wisdom. Deliberately, in other words, chose to endanger you, me, and everyone. It’s a shame that in twenty years not one journalist has asked him to justify this criminally irresponsible decision.

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    1. Ian, I don’t think Tim Berners-Lee is arguing that democracy is impossible without the web, simply that it has become a fundamental part of our lives now — and a crucial tool for freedom of information — and therefore worth protecting. And I doubt he would deny that there are downsides as well, although obviously crime existed before the Web too, just like democracy.

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    2. “What we can say with surety is that the Web is vital to cybercrime. That is Prof Berners Lee true legacy.”

      You’re kidding right? His true legacy is contributing to cybercrime… Not, you know, inventing the World Wide Web?

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  2. Brendan Farr-Gaynor Friday, November 19, 2010

    Re: Facebook – It seems like his issue is that all of this information isn’t publicly available. i.e. You need a user account to access it and that even then, it’s only available to a few users with the right credentials or relationships.

    Tim’s WWW is very different ‘in content’ then it was in the early days. There are lots of new additional content source types today. The stuff that was public then *is still* public now. On limitations we’re talking rights protected music and peoples personal details here which will always have privacy chains and limited access.

    The magazines as flat iPad apps issue is a different story, but if the content isn’t being delivered online anyway, or it’s protected like it always was I don’t think he can argue we’re moving to a state of WWW lockdown.

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  3. There will be more and more of such voices. Tethered appliances having a second birth pushed by Apple boxing/framing/jailing what users can and can not do. Also along with it centralized walled networks/services coming back as part of web 2.0 and software as a service movements.

    There are benefits to be gained and things to be lost…
    Some people in some situations would prefer to be jailed but safe then exposed to wild web. That’s what partially drives Appleand some other products with “Gate Keeprs” these days. Yes they win ease of use in anticipated use cases, ability to optimize better for those and various “guarantees” from manufacturer no PC/software manufacturer would give you. But they loose all those unanticipated or unwelcome by “Gate Keeper” use cases and frame their minds and ideas to frames imposed by the “Gate Keeper”. Noticed few times myself how I stopped to think outside the box Apple made being an owner of iPhone…

    And then there is software as service. Some (including me sometimes) would prefer small and weak devices attached to the cloud that we do not control, own or even know much about. We obviously win some things here but also loose some others. Like you can’t take your information out of the service often. Or that you can’t keep old version of the service when they roll out a new version(you can with desktop software).

    Also both such service and such devices allow great deal of control to those who has power over various things be it Apple banning Flash, RIA suing Apple to force Apple to ban say torrent apps, say Microsoft suing Google for Docs features forcing them to remove some crucial for Google clients features after they payed for them, or government forcing to remove features, add wiretapping etc etc… Those all are problems of centralized solutions. Ones that lost completely in 90 to the open web but now coming back as open and not controlled web is not perfect and has its own problems. Viruses, hacking, demand from user to have level of expertise to be able to use it efficiently, safely.

    In the end all those things are compromises. In 90 centralized and controlled compromise lost to open web. Now as more less techsevy people are coming to the web balance shifts back… I guess we will just have some swing back to feel again why such things lost in 90 and then find new balance between controlled and centralized modes and open and decentralized ones.

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