Tim Berners-Lee Wants a World Wide Web Where Our Data Works for Us

The future of the web as its creator thinks it should be.

Oct 8 2014, 1:20pm

Tim Berners-Lee at IP Expo. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

The future of the World Wide Web, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, its creator, requires us to fight for net neutrality and change our attitudes toward big data.

Delivering the keynote at the IP Expo Europe, an IT conference at London's ExCeL Centre, Berners-Lee set out his vision for the future of the web as a platform that remains neutral and that encourages an "appropriate" sharing of data that benefits users more than the companies that collect it.

The picture painted by Berners-Lee was admittedly an optimistic one; he prefaced his talk by saying that he wasn't going to give any predictions as such—"I prefer to put out there what I want to see."

And first on the list of what he thinks should happen is more or less a continuation of where we are now, and where the web began: with neutrality. He looked back 25 years to when he first had an "itch" to fix documentation systems at CERN and wrote the memo that would eventually lead to the development of the web. One of the most important things, Berners-Lee stressed, was the idea of the web as a platform without a central point.

"That's why we need to keep fighting for net neutrality," he said. "Net neutrality means keeping the internet like this platform without an attitude; a platform without a centre."

Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

When it came to developing the web, he said, "I didn't have to ask permission." Likewise, you don't have to come to him, or any other entity, to build on top of the web. If you did, he'd be swamped. "A central point of control would have limited the growth," he said. "Also, it would have meant people would have set up competing, incompatible platforms."

Berners-Lee has been outspoken on the net neutrality battle raging in the US, where he spends about half his time, and he called on the audience to do their bit to defend the decentralised network. Responding to questions after his speech, Berners-Lee suggested that, "If you spend 95 percent of your time using the web, you spend five percent fighting to keep it open."

But while he's adamant the fundamentals of the web as an open, neutral platform should remain the same, he recognises quite how much the web has advanced over the past quarter-century—and how much further it has to go.

"In the future, what's the world going to be like?" he asked. "Yes, communication networks are getting faster, but in a way it's more significant that computers are getting smarter."

Artificial intelligence is already here to an extent, and with the dawn of the big data era, most communications will be between machines. But we're thinking about big data wrong, according to Berners-Lee.

Net neutrality means keeping the internet like this platform without an attitude; a platform without a centre.

At the moment, Berners-Lee suggested, the focus is on how companies are scraping our data to target advertising or otherwise make money off of it. But we shouldn't be so obsessed with getting our piece of the pie. "That is so wrong-headed," Berners-Lee said, a hint of assertiveness permeating his usual measured delivery.

Really, targeting ads is just the start of what big data can do. "That data they have on you is actually not very valuable to them compared to how valuable it is to you as a person," he said. But that depends on what you do with it.

If a computer collated data from your doctor, your credit card company, your smart home, your social networks, and so on, it could get a real overview of your life. Berners-Lee was visibly enthusiastic about the potential applications of that knowledge, from living more healthily to picking better Christmas presents for his nephews and nieces. This, he said, would be "rich data."

But for him to share the kind of personal information that could inform such applications, he'd like to keep control of his data. That's the trade-off.

Sharing enough data to be truly useful while still maintaining a level of privacy is the key to this kind of idyllic-sounding web future.

That data they have on you is actually not very valuable to them compared to how valuable it is to you as a person.

Ever the optimist, Berners-Lee doesn't think it's too late to negotiate. "The idea that privacy's dead is hopeless and it's sad," he said. "We have to build systems that allow privacy." His solution? An accountable system that would flip the idea of tracking data usage 180 degrees. "We make tracking something you do on people who use data," he suggested.

So if a researcher used your health data in a study to look at drug effects, for instance, you'd know about it and could find out how it was used. This would of course have to come with certain regulations on exactly what's allowed to be done—you might want your medical records easily accessible to an emergency responder when you've had a car accident, for instance, but maybe not to an insurer who could use it to bump up your premiums.

Berners-Lee's hopeful vision of his invention's future hinges on the "appropriate" use of data. While the world of data sharing will predominantly run on machine-to-machine communications, it's this that really injects humanity into the process. In Berners-Lee's future, data would not be quashed (you wouldn't have a "right to be forgotten"), but it would only be used in a way we deem to be acceptable.

It sounds like an idyllic web future, but perhaps not an impossible one. Ultimately, the web in 25 years' time will be what we collectively make it; from the moment he unleashed it, it's been out of Berners-Lee's hands. That, after all, was pivotal to the design.

And so Berners-Lee ended his talk with a challenge: "You've got the web platform; go out and build those tools. Let's use them."