The Trump administration’s decision to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to sign away their customers’ privacy and sell the browsing habits of their customers is “disgusting” and “appalling”, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web.
Talking to the Guardian as he was declared recipient of the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery’s AM Turing award on Tuesday, Berners-Lee expressed mounting concerns about the direction of the internet he did so much to promote.
Berners-Lee expressed particular concern for the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to scrap an Obama-era rule that would have prevented ISPs from harvesting their customers web logs. “That bill was a disgusting bill, because when we use the web, we are so vulnerable,” he said.
Berners-Lee also discussed Republican politicians’ plans to roll back the so-called net neutrality protections that are the backbone of an open internet, how his own legacy intersects with the great Alan Turing’s, and the astonishing progress of the web since he launched the very first website on 1 August 1991.
Berners-Lee has spent years fighting to protect an open internet and against privatization of personal data. The 51-year-old prize could scarcely go to a more appropriate recipient. Turing’s innovations helped to standardize computing, and Berners-Lee helped to make standardized conversation between computers possible for the layman. Berners-Leewill accept the award on 24 June at a ceremony in San Francisco.
Sir Tim, congratulations on the award.
It is a great honor, isn’t it? In computer science it is the honor. It’s incredible when you look at the giants of the field, the computer science researchers of the past, it’s a great honor to be put on the end of that list. Alan Turing – we can’t celebrate him too much, for lots of reasons but partly because his idea for computers which you could program and then it was really up to you what you did with them.
Your family are also computer scientists, is that right?
My parents met building the first computers in the UK. My mum has been called the first commercial computer programmer.
Did you have any notion of how radically information technology would change the world? I don’t know if anyone conceived of the way it would change everything from finance to journalism.
The idea was that it was universal and there should be no boundaries to it. There should be a sense that you can put anything on it: you can put scribbled notes on it, you can put beautiful artwork on it, and you can connect them together so people can go back later and see a connection between the scribbled note and the artwork it became. And you should be able to link to anything, and so you should be able to put anything on the web. That was the driving force behind the design, and motivation for trying to get people onboard.
You remember that before the web there were bulletin boards. A bulletin board was a system where you could just leave a computer sitting at home connected to a telephone line, and people could dial up from their computers and they could exchange messages. The computers would allow people to email each other and have discussions without any central authority or central system. So even before the web, there was this utopian dream that people connected by technology could aspire to better things, and that we could have, because electronics and communications didn’t recognize borders.
That utopianism seems to survive in open-source communities.
There are a core group of people from within the web community definitely pushing it from that point of view. Right now, though, there are people who despair because everyone’s in the same social network and it’s just as though they had just dialed up to America Online. They might as well have kept America Online, rather than move to Facebook! It’s a game they’re living; a nice, useful, but non-decentralized thing. People are trying to – I call it re-decentralizing the web. Originally the web was decentralized; now it seems to be centralized again. What can we build which will end up re-decentralizing it?
What did you think of the congressional repeal of Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules?
It’s not the case that an ISP can just spy on people and monetize the data; if they do, they will get taken to court. Obviously the worry is the attitude and the direction. The attitude is really appalling. That bill was a disgusting bill, because when we use the web, we are so vulnerable.
When the internet was new, when people didn’t realize to what extent it would be important to people’s lives, I gave talks pointing out that, actually, when people use the web what they do is really, really intimate. They go to their doctor for a second opinion; they’ve gone to the web for the first opinion on whether it’s cancer. They communicate very intimately with family members that they love. There are things that people do on the web that reveal absolutely everything, more about them than they know themselves sometimes. Because so much of what we do in our lives that actually goes through those left-clicks, it can be ridiculously revealing. You have the right to go to a doctor in privacy where it’s just between you and the doctor. And similarly, you have to be able to go to the web.
Privacy, a core American value, is not a partisan thing. Democrats fight for it and Republicans fight for it too, maybe even more. So I am very shocked that the Republican party has managed to suggest that it should be trashed; if anyone follows up on this direction, there will be a massive pushback – and there must be a massive pushback!
If they take away net neutrality, there will have to be a tremendous amount of public debate as well. You can bet there will be public demonstrations if they do try to take it away.
Are we reaching a breaking point when it comes to the centralization of the internet?
Advertising and clickbait have gotten to a point where people find them really frustrating and intolerable. Clickbait, which is written in such a seductive way that it’s almost impossible not to click on it, along with pop-up advertising, are both pushing people very, very hard so that they’re liable to lash back and just deliberately pay for anything that won’t have ads, basically.
We might get a pushback there. People can pick things up on the internet very quickly but they can also drop them very quickly. If your favorite social network suddenly became uncool – you’ve seen how people switch from one photo app to another, from Instagram to Snapchat – I think we might get a world in which certainly those who can afford it block out a space where their children can learn online without spending most of their time watching ads, for example, and therefore get a better education.
It is a bit of a worry that those who can afford it will have a better online experience than those who can’t will have. They’ll be able to afford real news; those who can’t afford it will put up with the ads and they won’t have the same quality of life.
I spoke to a lot of people during the election who seemed to have been getting a completely parallel set of news stories that had no relation to reality – do you think that’s a consequence of the advertising economy? What’s going to happen there?
Well, those people you’ve talked to, there’s a lot of them. Their ability to get good-faith, unbiased medical advice, as opposed to medical advice that is always selling you to the nearest proprietary drug and that sort of thing, that is worrying. One of the things which I have been suggesting is that people who run social networks have an obligation to step back. You post something and get a like or a retweet; that’s all very well, but what are the emergent social consequences when you put that in front of everybody? I think the major social networks have taken a big step back recently. The sort of world that we have is a function of the way we code Facebook.
The Twitter folks, who crowed about how great anonymity was for the “Arab spring” – never say that without quotes – then suddenly they find that this anonymity is really not appreciated when it’s used by nasty misogynist bullies and they realize they have to tweak their system to limit not necessarily behavior but the way it propagates. They’ve talked about using AI to distinguish between constructive and unconstructive comments; one possibility is that by tweaking the code in things, you can have a sea change in the way society works.
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