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On 30 years of the Web, founder Tim Berners-Lee talks about decentralisation, data localisation, Internet Shutdowns, end-to-end encryption, misinformation and more

On the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, its founder Tim Berners-Lee has highlighted three sources of disfunction on the web:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

Lee says in a letter that we “can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.” He has called for the web to be recognised as a human right and built for public good, and for citizens, governments and companies to build a new Contract for the Web.

In a conversation with Berners-Lee, I discussed issues that are rife in particular in India: of centralisation of the Internet with a few dominant players, misinformation and Internet Shutdowns, personal data being seen as a national resource and data localisation, platform neutrality, and end-to-end encryption:


On Centralisation of the Internet, the accessibility of web versus apps

MediaNama: We’ve seen a large amount of centralisation of the Internet ever since the launch of the iPhone and the growth of app stores and apps. I was wondering if the web has lost to the app ecosystem, with the kind of centralisation that apps have facilitated. Is there a way to re-decentralise the web from here on?

Tim Berners Lee: In a way these are two questions in one and they are related…Three questions in one. One of them is have web apps have lost out to native apps. When will we know that we have lost? We do, when we look at something on an app and it doesn’t have a URL. Because you can surf a website, you can take a URL and bookmark it. You can drop it into a chat. We can have a chat about it, a review about it, and it’s a part of the discourse. That’s a really important part of the web that anyone can refer to any other thing. But then if you look at a lot of the apps I use, in fact the way some apps work is that they do typically provide something of a very specific environment for, like watching a video, using full screen, but then good apps have a link button that you can click on. And so even when they are native apps, there is a fully functional web behind them. Anything that you can provide in a good web app, you can produce a URL for it. There are URLs and references of the URL, and other people who don’t have the app will see a version on the web, and people who do have the app, have a choice of whether they see it on the web or the app. I think it’s a constant battle.

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The web app platform has become more and more functional, and it’s always chasing the native app. The native app will be faster, and new developments allow pre-loading large chunks of javascript, for example. The battle is still on. For each time it looks as though its more fun to design a native app than a web app, the web app platform then catches up. The web development environment is the main development environment. For a lot of people it is a very powerful development environment because it works with zero install for everybody. A lot of native apps are in fact, of course, you make the web app and then you run it for platform that cranks out the native app equivalent. From a developer’s point of view you’re all using the web HTML technology.

MediaNama: We have around 40 to 60 million people coming online every year, and many of them do not speak English, and there is no functionality for URLs to be in Indian scripts and Indian languages. For many of these people, the primary access points are apps, and not the web or a URL. Do you think there has been a failure of the evolution of the URL? If you had to reimagine it (the URL) for today, how would you reimagine it?

Tim Berners Lee: The URL itself is just a pointer. When you click on it, then your device goes over the web, and it sends your favourite languages in http to the server. So when you go to Wikipedia – you follow a link to Wikipedia – and it can’t help you by giving you, or if you’re a woman looking to look up some pre-natal information, and you’re not an English speaker, I think we need to put in a lot more effort. It’s two sides, actually. Anyone who is looking to build tools like that in India, and in India you have one of the largest diversities of languages out there, but certainly, effort put in companies, potentially regulation by government to say that if you’re serving people in any language with more than 100,000 people, every government should provide for automatically switching to that. The functionality to switch languages automatically has been built in from the very beginning, from the very very early days of http. And so, in the open source community, for example, there are big pushes to take all the comments that a program will give you, and turn that into a big table of it, and get people from different languages to sit in different columns, that this is what it is in Hindi, and this is what it is in Arabic. It’s hard work.

Maybe the Web Foundation hasn’t pushed very hard on that, on internationalisation, and it is something that we could do. Sometimes a crowdsourced drive to internationalise an open source product can be very effective. You have a lot of dialects which are only spoken in India, and by a relatively small number of people. Getting the Indian open source community involved would be very interesting. And the Indian government ought to. I think it’s their moral duty to make sure that the web works for everybody in India. If they don’t, the open source community could work on that.

International domain names, you can have different scripts in domain names. To a certain extent, users spend less time looking at URLs than domain names. They shouldn’t be really aware of the URLs. They should be aware of the links. You should be able to drag a little icon for the thing you’re reading and drop it into the chat. I should be able to click on it without ever worrying about what the actual characters of the URL are. In the original design of the web, you didn’t see the URL.

MediaNama: You think there are ways to redecentralise the web?

Tim Berners Lee: As background, you may remember the time when there were online services, and certainly in the English speaking world, America Online became completely dominant, and people worried that they had control of the whole information world, and then the web appeared. When the web appeared, everybody got online using Netscape. So then people worried that Netscape had control of the information world, because the only browser you would use is Netscape. Until Microsoft Explorer came on. Then they worried that Microsoft had control and that was even more serious because Microsoft had control of the operating system and the browser. But then Microsoft was forced to introduce APIs and separate the operating system and the browser, and very soon, there were a few browsers. Browsers like Firefox and Safari, and now Chrome, appeared. People have worried about Google being the dominant search engine. People worry about Facebook – and if you’re in a Facebook country, being the dominant search engine.

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So the first message is, through history, it’s been funny how the completely dominant platform has sometimes lost its dominance to a challenger, like MySpace and Facebook, or sometimes in a space dominance hasn’t become important. It isn’t the browser you use – the search engine you use has much more power over your life. If one day Facebook wasn’t cool, you can imagine – it’s a pain to move from one social network to another, but on the other hand, social networks like mewe.com have respected privacy, where you can share your photos with family and friends in a privacy preserving way. The moment there’s a problem with another platform, a million more people join mewe. That’s one possible way in which people go to other platforms.

The other possibility may be is that there is a lot of pressure put on large companies like Facebook and Google to expose APIs, and the moment you want to download your Facebook updates, I imagine there’s a Facebook API to do it. If Facebook goes along with the project we have called Solid, then they will produce APIs which are standard. That means you can look at your photos whether they’re by Facebook, Dropbox or Google. Some people draw an analogy of Microsoft allowing others to create for Windows by exposing Windows API. One of the possibilities to enable competition in that space.

In the UK there’s a thing called open banking, which means that any bank must expose your financial data via open API. That means there’s all kinds of financial apps that you can get. There’s a competition between different apps for helping you manage your money, which comes from Open APIs. One of the things we can do is push for Open APIs.


On data localisation and data as a national resource

MediaNama: You talked about portability. There’s a conversation in India about personal data being seen as a national resource, and there’s a strong move here to localise data storage and restrict cross border flow of data. What are your views on how that will impact the global nature of the Internet?

Tim Berners-Lee: That’s one of the things that the Web Foundation has always been concerned about: the balkanisation of the Internet. If you want to balkanise it, that’s a pretty darn effective way of doing it. If you say that Indian people’s data can’t be stored outside India, that means that when you start a social network which will be accessed by people all over the world, that means that you will have to start 152 different companies all over the world. It’s a barrier to entry. Facebook can do that. Google can do that.

When an Indian company does it, and you’ll end up with an Indian company that serves only Indian users. When people go abroad, they won’t be able to keep track of their friends at home. The whole wonderful open web of knowledge, academic and political discussions would be divided into country groups and cultural groups, so there will be a massive loss of richness to the web.


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On Platform Neutrality

MediaNama: When it comes to access to information and access to URLs, there is talk about a need for neutrality for platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Do you think that Net Neutrality regulations ought to be extended to platforms that operate on the web?

Tim Berners-Lee: Net Neutrality at the moment is at the TCP level. You’re suggesting that neutrality should be introduced for things like search engines?

MediaNama: It’s not just search engines, but also in terms of app discovery, in terms of prioritisation on social networks of certain news items. Just a couple of days ago, there was a meeting of Indian parliamentarians with representatives of Facebook and WhatsApp, a couple of weeks before that, with Twitter. Indian parliamentarians demanded that these platforms be neutral in terms of what they show to people on the web. It’s not about network regulations being expanded to the web, but a call for neutrality of platforms, and whether there should be regulation of that.

Tim Berners Lee: Can we call it editorial neutrality? Like the editor of the Guardian will try to emphasise that his staff should be neutral that his staff shouldn’t discriminate about stories about certain cultures, about different race, colour or creed, or sexual preferences, and when it comes to political parties, they should give an even balance.

MediaNama: More about algorithmic neutrality than editorial neutrality.

Tim Berners-Lee: Well, it’s the same thing now. So much of the editing job is done by algorithms. The web foundation has always pushed for transparency about these algorithms. It’s hard, but to a certain extent, when Facebook started as a club that a few people joined, then [for example] one of the things you can do, which is a human right to associate with your friends, you can start a club in which the only news articles that you can look at are about birds. And you can do that within a club. Political parties are a club where you have mindset, where one economic model of how to run a country is different, and free speech gives people the freedom of association. You have to be careful. The problem becomes when you have a search engine which is a vastly dominant player.

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So obviously, if things move, the arguments that people have made, for example, in Germany that Google therefore effectively is a national resource, and whoever runs it it’s a national resource that Germans go to every day of their lives, and the German attitude is that therefore it should run by our rules. And it should be neutral…it should act as if it were a government.

And so to a certain extent, they have a point. It’s a bit like when people nationalised the railroad system in a country to get it to perform in a way that everybody in a country, or they brought in regulations to ensure that they work in a manner that they’re a part of the government anyway. When something is dominant in a country, that’s an argument. The beautiful thing is that when you define neutrality, you may find that the people in Texas, in Germany and in Finland would have different definitions.


On Internet Shutdowns

MediaNama: India has had the largest number of Internet Shutdowns in the world. The last year, it was 134, and most of them have been linked to the spread of misinformation, which have potentially led to riots. It is in the riotous situations that the district collectors shut the Internet down. Now there’s a top-down approach to eradicating misinformation, by regulating platforms and holding them accountable. Do you think this is a mechanism is feasible, given the vast amounts of misinformation that goes through the platforms, and what would be your solution to addressing this problem?

Tim Berners-Lee: It is a very real problem. A lot of the concept of the web is about trying to build a world in which people naturally spend more time working towards the truth than working towards exchanging conspiracy theories. Asking the platforms – so I know then when discussions on social media has led to genocide, the platforms have felt responsible and looked towards what they want to do, and governments have wanted to pressure social media companies. I know the British government wanted to pressure the social media to try to suppress material by people trying to radicalise terrorists. To start with, shutting down the Internet is not the solution. The solution is, we need to talk about where the border is between hate speech and free speech. For example, a lot of this issue is: riots may come from hate speech running out of control. People can naturally turn nasty. We all have it somewhere to be tribal, vicious and vengeful. Sometimes it may happen because of the way social networks just allow us to retweet things, and tweaking a social network to put a delay in, to use AI to help us be more effective – if you really want to retweet, I suggest you sleep on it, and lets see if you want to retweet tomorrow morning. You can tweak the way the social networks work.

Another problem is when all these conspiracy theories have been created very cleverly by political or commercial or criminal organisations. That is a part of cybersecurity. That is an outright deliberate attack, and cybersecurity is about attacks on the democratic processes, and can cause rioting and death. These are important cybersecurity issues. When the government wants to have processes to take things down, obviously the first suspicion is that the government is going to do that in order to stifle its opposition, and not to fight crime. That’s our experience looking at the world.

Shutting down the Internet as a whole is very destructive to the economy. It’s very destructive to the constructive discussion about what should happen. In a way, it is a last resort option by the government, I think, indicating that the government is too weak. Censorship in general I think is an indication of the weakness of the government. A strong government is one which can allow people to criticise it. A strong government allows open debate, and becomes stronger in their commitment to involve the population fairly. When governments win the trust of the public, they will become more capable of leading them.


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On End to End Encryption

MediaNama: One major debate that is brewing is around end to end encryption, about whether it is good or bad, and there are calls in India for removing end to end encryption which allows malicious actors the freedom to operate with impunity. Traceability is a significant demand that is being made of WhatsApp, which isn’t feasible with end to end encryption.

Tim Berners-Lee: Personally, I’ve always thought that end to end encryption is crucial, but recently if you can point to the incident of it being a component of a genocidal wave, then it’s a concern. One of the things that social networks can look at is looking at metadata. The text of people’s messages, most of the time, is very private. If the police can, using the appropriate judicial system, ask to get the metadata to see who’s talked to who, that’s provided traditionally for phone records and so on, that has been a very very powerful tool. When you look at the some of the hacks that have been done, like the Russians hacking the Trump Election, there’s a trail of breadcrumbs, and you can see what happened. You can learn to do this before the critical thing happens.

My suggestion is to establish good legal grounds for getting metadata and use the metadata, because you can draw the social graph of these people, and even though you can’t read the message, you can see from the time patterns, and geographical patterns of the clustering of the communication, you can build machines which will flag things which are suspicious. And then you don’t have to un-encrypt the messages. You do have to be able to expose the identity of the people with appropriate legal due process.

Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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