Creator of the World Wide Web speaks about corporations, data, and privacy

Berners-Lee: we must give users more control of their data

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of World Wide Web, speaks in a talk titled "From Utopia to Dystopia in 29 Short Years" about threats to the web and possible solutions May 2.
Adib Hasan–The Tech

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, co-creator of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3), delivered the Dertouzous Distinguished Lecture May 2. In his lecture, titled “Utopia to Dystopia in 29 Short Years,” he traced the history of the internet back to its roots, describing his initial work linking the internet and hypertext, two technologies that existed before his work.

Through HTTP, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), Berners-Lee was able to create an information-sharing model that became the World Wide Web. However, his lecture was anything but a technical explanation of how the internet came to be. Berners-Lee shared his vision of what the internet would become and how reality fell short of his vision, and shared plans to recapture his initial vision.

While political movements toppled regimes throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, Berners-Lee wrote “Information Management: A Proposal,” a paper that described his vision for a networked hypertext system for CERN. In the spirit of the uprisings of 1989, Berners-Lee envisioned an open, decentralized internet in which people could collaborate to create a better world. He predicted an internet which would promote information-sharing across geographic and cultural boundaries. Although the internet certainly has promoted information sharing and collaboration, Berners-Lee still believes that his utopia has not come to fruition.

Twenty-nine years after the launch of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee sees significant problems with the current state of the internet. Through the relaxed net neutrality laws, large corporations can limit what content internet users can access. Also, the recent controversy over privacy rights in the wake of Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election easily show how the internet is doing the opposite of empowering individuals.

Berners-Lee ended his talk by describing what he sees as our dystopia. He sees an internet that is increasingly dominated by a few large corporations like Twitter and Facebook. With corporations dominating the internet, Berners-Lee argues that the internet becomes less about empowering the individual and more about serving the capitalist system.

The path back to utopia involves giving users more control of their data, which would create more value for them. People value their access to privacy more than corporations value data, according to Berners-Lee. To recapture the utopia of the initial vision of the internet, we must decentralize the web. Berners-Lee described his own work in creating Solid, a new set of web protocols which would promote user privacy and decentralized web applications.