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2016 ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient Tim Berners-Lee

Credit: Alexander Berg

Building a decentralized platform like the World Wide Web is, in many ways, a crucial test of one's ability to let go, but ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient Sir Tim Berners-Lee is proud of the explosive creativity his invention has fostered. However, that does not mean he is done refining his creation: now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oxford University, Berners-Lee is still passionately involved in the fight to keep the Web open and available to all, protect people's personal data, and stop the spread of fake news.

Your parents were both programmers.

They were mathematicians, and they worked for Ferranti, which was commercializing the Mark 1 computer for Manchester University. At the time, they thought they would have all kinds of things next week, translating a document or solving school time-tabling problems. That turned out to be more difficult. But they found it was great for accounts, and they worked on some of the first cathode-ray tube GUIs (graphical user interfaces). It was very exciting, and my parents and their colleagues were full of immense challenge and opportunity.

And then, in 1989, you invented the World Wide Web. What stands out for you now about that time?

A few things are worth picking out. For instance, even though the Internet was well established back then, it was politically inappropriate to use Internet protocols in Europe, because Europe was trying to stick to ISO protocols. There were a few people who used the Internet anyway, like Ben Segal, who was one of my mentors at CERN and suggested it would be a good way to go, even though it wasn't officially the way to go.

Your manager at CERN, Mike Sendall, also took what seems, in retrospect, like an amazing institutional leap of faith in allowing you to build the World Wide Web.

Mike didn't have an official excuse for creating a global hypertext system, because we were supposed to be working on systems the physics experiments, but he found an excuse to do it as a way of kicking the tires on a new computer, the NeXT machine, which Steve Jobs had made when he left Apple.

The comment Mike appended to your proposal was "vague but exciting."

That particular document didn't come to light until he passed away, and his wife, Peggy, found it. So you could see that a lot of credit is due to him for going with "exciting" rather than "vague."

You initial mission for the Web was quite collaborative: the first browser also functioned as an editor.

The idea was that the Web should be a read/write space, so if there's an idea that isn't there as I'm browsing on the Web, I could just put it on, and other people could immediately link in their own ideas. The intention was to capture both the text of a new idea, but also the realization that it linked to another idea, which would be a brilliant environment in which to develop, for example, the real-time software that CERN needed to run experiments in the accelerators.

But in fact, the original browser only ran on the NeXT, and the NeXT did not take over the planet. So more and more people saw the Web as a read-only medium. And then HTML got more complicated, so the job of building browsers became more difficult.

It was around this time that you came to MIT.

I was working at CERN, and people from the tech industry came to me and said, "We need to form a consortium. If you were to go to MIT and start a consortium for the Web, we would join." So I went to MIT in 1994, and it was none too early, because Microsoft and Netscape were fiercely battling over HTML tags.

The Web's original read/write aspirations were revived, to some extent, when blogs came into being.

Hypertext Web is a very flexible medium, and obviously people have done all kinds of things with it. Blogs were an early one, and if you rewind to the culture at that time, there was a strong utopian favor to it. People would link to you and you could link to other people, and you and your computer were part of this big web of interconnected humanity, which felt very decentralized.


"Walled gardens can be very successful ... but the walled garden can never compete with the crazy diversity of the jungle outside the gates."


In the nationless environment of the Web, people imagined we would break down barriers and live in peace and love.

But looking back, in a way, that lapsed goal isn't such an unreasonable thing to aim for. Even though we don't have it now, I think, for a lot of people, the Web feels very centralized. With social networks, it feels as though they're still logging onto this big mainframe computer.

Of course, social networks have co-opted some of the early Web's Utopian language.

Each one of them tries to do everything that the open Web is able to do, but within a closed, controlled environment. Walled gardens can be very successfulAOL got a huge number of people online to connect and communicate. But the walled garden can never compete with the crazy diversity of the jungle outside the gates.

Let's talk about your work with the World Wide Web Foundation.

Initially, the Web Foundation was founded with two goals. One was access.

When we started, 20% of the world's population was using the Web, which is actually a huge number. But then suddenly, because it's comparable with the number of people on the planet, it becomes a small number, because it begs the question of, 'What about the other people?" So the Web Foundation is partly focused on what we can do to get people who are not using the Web on board as quickly as possible.

And the second goal?

The other goal is to maintain the Web's essential qualities: its neutrality, its confidentiality, its openness, its universality in the sense that it can be used by anybody for anything without discrimination. When we started, there was no one else really thinking about communication as a right; now, more organizations have gotten involved, and there's quite a network of us collaborating and pushing for a better Web.

Neutrality and access are no longer the only challenges faced by the Web.

We'd imagined that if we keep the Web neutral, get everybody equal access, and keep it non-discriminatory, then surely humanity will do the right thing. Last year, we realized that we can't just assume people will make the right choices to provide justice or truth or democracy. So now the Web Foundation and other organizations are making a conscious, strategic decision to think about the next layer.

Sounds like there's some overlap with your work with the Web Science Trust, an organization you founded in 2006 to formalize the study of how people behave on the Web.

We started the Web Science Trust because we realized that in order to really understand the way political and emotional ideas propagate across a network of people connected by technology, we need a very multi-disciplinary mix of peoplepsychologists and economists, as well as computer scientists and mathematicians and physicists and so on.

2016 gives an important charge to anyone who calls themselves a Web scientist.

Yes. To say, "Use your skills of analysis to understand what goes on, understand really to what extent these things support truth and democracy." And then you need to use your skills as an engineer to build things that are better. Just looking at the existing social networks and sighing about what happens isn't going to do anything. We have to start building stuff that's better.

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Author

Leah Hoffmann is a technology writer based in Piermont, NY.


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