Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The cross-border, centralised nature of the world wide web is “absolutely in the balance” right now, warned Sir Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, yesterday (17 October) at the Sibos conference in Toronto.

In his address to the Innotribe conference stream on the past, present and future of the internet, Berners-Lee discussed the balkanisation of the web because of restrictions such as the “great firewall of China”; corporate appropriation of the technology (such as paywalls); and threats to “net neutrality” from political populists, social media algorithms and other sources.

The future of innovations such as distributed ledger technology (DLT), which is often described as the “new web”, was also discussed in a wide-ranging speech that touched on open application programming interfaces (APIs) and banking. This trend, backed by regulations such as the revised EU Payment Services Directive (PSD2), would mean a consumer is able to access his or her data in one place in the future. “I know some of you are working on it: it’d be good,” said Berners-Lee.

He is optimistic that in the long-term, a global, re-centralised internet will emerge, with the desire for easy, global trade as a driver, while not negating the need to fight for security, privacy and democratic and academic freedoms. “When you publish something it should be readable anywhere in the world.”

Berners-Lee created the world wide web in 1989 while working at Cern when he realised he could build on the internet file transfer system used by the US military since 1969 with a global Hypertext system (http) that could order it and create “one big book”.

The scientist and academic has subsequently worked as a founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation to try to ensure the web is accessible to all and establish it as a global public good and basic right. He is also a director of the World Wide Web Consortium, a global web standards organisation he founded in 1994 to lead the web to its full potential and keep it open. In 2012 he co-founded the Open Data Institute, which advocates for open data in the UK and globally. “The internet and web is a network that reflects humanity,” said Berners-Lee. “We can put it to the uses we decide. For instance, political adverts on Facebook can be turned off. It’s choice how we use it.”

Discussing his early days, Berners-Lee joked that very few understood the web when he wrote the memo for it in 1989, although as a pioneer, “it was a luxury to be able to set standards by myself – something I’m sure the people here understand”.

However, early design decisions have an impact later on, he warned, so think about them clearly. He cited email and SMTP as an example where a lack of thought among academics about how commerce would use the protocol led to email spam, “which is still a problem today”.

In the early days of development, Berners-Lee’s boss called his web concept “vague but exciting”. A term that could perhaps be used to describe the DLT arena, which he also discussed. “Blockchain is a way of notarising things,” said Berners-Lee. “It could be used to form a new domain name system that isn’t subject to cyber-squatting, or to put a public key on it to increase email security. Indeed, it could be used if you no longer trust the web”. Again, it is about choice, he said, and decisions need to be made now about “what you are going to build on it”.

It is possible, indeed probable, that the same battles that Berners-Lee fought to keep the web open will be replicated in the blockchain world. How many chains will be established, using which consortium’s protocols? How much centralisation, interoperability, common standards, security and so forth will there be as DLT usage increases?

All these questions are up for debate, but it is certain that corporates will hive off the technology for their own ends, while hopefully remembering that some commonality must remain to achieve beneficial network effects among multiple parties.

By Neil Ainger, reporter, Daily News at Sibos

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