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From ­topia to Dystopia, and Back Again


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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and recipient of the ACM A.M. Turing Award.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee said the World Wide Web, once a truly decentralized network, has been turned into a much more centralized place by a few dominant platforms in recent years. "We now have to re-decentralize it."

Credit: ACM

Last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee received the ACM A.M. Turing Award, generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science and the "Nobel Prize of computing," for his invention of the World Wide Web, the first Web browser, "and the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the Web to scale."

Berners-Lee proposed what we now call the Web in 1989, while he was working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland (his boss at the time called his proposal "vague, but exciting").

During the Turing Award Lecture he presented last week at the Free University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, during the 10th International ACM Web Science Conference (WebSci'18), Berners-Lee led the audience on a passionate route along the past, present, and future of the Web; "From Utopia to Dystopia and back again?" as he called it.

Back in 1989, the same year in which central and eastern Europe were full of political turmoil—with the fall of the Berlin Wall as an iconic highlight—and in which the world was full of new political dreams, the World Wide Web that Berners-Lee envisioned was similarly full of dreams. He felt the Web should become an open, decentralized platform where everybody should be able to share information across geographic and cultural boundaries, allowing creativity and cooperation to bloom.

These dreams have only partly come true, said Berners-Lee.  As an example, he points to Wikipedia: "It's amazing that humanity has created something like Wikipedia. Only for this was it worth to have invented the Web."

In recent years, however, the Web has suffered some collateral damage, said Berners-Lee, who said he worries about the loss of control over personal data, the ease with which misinformation can spread, the personalization of political advertising, and the power of social media platforms.

"You can see these things as emergent phenomena that couldn't have been predicted from the original design," said Berners-Lee. "The way in which people interact with the Web is very complicated. We now have about the same number of Web pages as humans have neurons in the brain. We do not understand the brain very well, and therefore we need neuroscience and cognitive science; in the same way, we need Web science as a separate discipline. Web science can, along with the social sciences, help us to understand how the Web works. It can also help us to build better systems which lead people to be constructive."

In the first few years after the World Wide Web was launched, it was a truly decentralized network, said Berners-Lee; it has only been during the past five or so years that a few dominant platforms have turned the Web into a much more centralized place. "We now have to re-decentralize it," he said.

While many appear to assume that Web users are happy to give up their privacy in exchange for free products, services, or online capabilities, Berners-Lee called that a myth. He said people actually do care about privacy, and would be willing to pay for apps, content, news, and data storage in order to preserve their privacy.

Berners-Lee said he sees undesired emergent phenomena on the Web (loss of control over personal data, speading misinformation, unchecked/unverified political advertising, and the power of social media platforms) as bugs that can be fixed.

As a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he leads a project called Solid (https://solid.mit.edu), which attempts to change the way Web applications work. "Solid is all about choice, your choice," he said. The idea behind Solid is that users should be able to choose where their data will be kept, and who has access to the data. The Solid project decouples applications from the data they produce, so users can move from one application to another without losing their data or their social connections.

The ideal of an open Web as a public good and a basic right continuously needs to be defended, said Berners-Lee. "Many in the tech community thought that net neutrality (the concept that Internet Service Providers must treat all data the same, and not discriminate or charge differently for different users, content, websites, platforms, applications, etc.) would become generally accepted. Unfortunately, net neutrality came under pressure during the present U.S. administration. However, the battle is not lost yet. There is a path forward."

Together with the World Wide Web Foundation he founded, Berners-Lee has set goals for the development of the Web of the future. One is to create a Web that truly empowers people, instead of being dominated by a few tech companies.

Another goal is to ensure that the Web is accessible to everybody in the world. "This year, we will reach the point where half of the world population will have access to the Web. From something for a minority, the Web will soon become something for the majority. This will have new consequences, because the larger this majority, the more disempowered the people who will not be online will become. Companies and governments will tell you: 'do you want to know this or that? Go find it on the Web.' Therefore, closing the digital divide is a priority for the World Wide Web Foundation."

Bennie Mols is a science and technology writer based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


 

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