Sir Tim Berners-Lee recalls a time when computer users around the world were quite nervous about the power of Netscape.
“A lot of people thought, ‘Oh, wow, a clingy and controlling Web company. What do we do about it?’” says Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and inventor of the World Wide Web. “Then they weren’t worried about Netscape anymore. They were worried about Microsoft, and they worried about Microsoft for a long time. Then they woke up one day and said, ‘Wait, the browser is not the issue. It’s the search engines.’”
Today, it’s the social network that has people worried, says Berners-Lee. But whichever medium is in society’s crosshairs, he says the fear is very similar in each case.
“When you have a monopoly, it slows innovation,” Berners-Lee says. “It reduces competition, and it’s generally not good for the market. One of the most important things about the Web is it being an open platform. The ’Net is a neutral medium. I can connect and you can connect, and we can talk. That is really important to an open market and democracy.”
One of Berners-Lee’s primary missions with the W3C is to ensure the Web is being used to its full potential. But it is also to make sure it remains an independent entity so that everyone who wants to has the opportunity to tap into that potential.
“If you can start tweaking what people say or you can start intercepting their communications, it’s very powerful,” Berners-Lee says. “It’s the sort of power that if you give it to a corrupt government, you can give them the ability to stay in power forever. It’s healthy for us to not put the Internet directly under the control of the government, but to have a set of multi-secular organizations at arm’s length from government acting responsibly and taking many views.”
Still plenty of room to grow
Berners-Lee helped launch the World Wide Web Foundation in 2009 to bring the power of the Web to more people.
“Maybe now 25 or 30 percent of the world uses the Web,” Berners-Lee says. “That’s still a massive gap and a massive number of languages where there still isn’t a lot on the Web. There’s a lot of culture that isn’t represented and a lot of countries where they haven’t the backbone for a good Internet base.”
The foundation has designed and produced the Web Index, the world’s first multi-dimensional measure of the world’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations. It covers 61 developed and developing countries, incorporating indicators that assess the political, economic and social impact of the Web in that country.
“The higher level of the Web Index is looking at impact,” Berners-Lee says. “Is it really affecting the way people do politics? Is it really affecting the way you do education? Is it affecting health?”
The recent turmoil in Egypt was a wake-up call to many who are connected to the Internet, but have started to take its power for granted.
“They thought the Internet was like the air, that it would always be there,” Berners-Lee says. “And people started asking the question, ‘Who could turn off my Internet?’”
Fortunately, there are countless efforts underway from those in the technology industry not to restrict access, but to take the Web to even greater heights.
“The art is designing it to work with all kinds of devices because different customer segments are going to use different devices in different countries,” Berners-Lee says. “If you’re designing something new on the Web, you need to make sure it works on all devices.”
How to reach: World Wide Web Consortium, www.w3.org