The University of Southampton

Berners-Lee warns of threats to Web's principles on 20th anniversary

Published: 22 November 2010

Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of when the World Wide Web went live on his desktop, ECS Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has issued a powerful warning of threats to the Web’s egalitarian principles – particularly from social networking sites and Government, and wireless Internet providers.

Writing in Scientific American this week, ‘Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality’, Berners-Lee warns that it is the Web users who might lose the freedom to connect to Web sites if, for example, social networking sites continue to block access to information provided by their users.

Berners-Lee believes that free speech will be the ultimate cost of business enterprises breaking up the Web into small unconnected fragmented islands and urges users to take action: ‘Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation.’

Berners-Lee identifies universality as one of Web’s key principles, providing people with the freedom to link to anything, regardless of hardware, software, or Internet connection. He also cites decentralization, which has made innovation possible. Specific threats to universality come from cable television companies that might limit their users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment. Social networking sites too are causing problems by holding information about their members which isn’t transferable between sites, ‘locking-in’ large amounts of data.

Berners-Lee commends open standards, especially improvements to standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which he leads; he writes about the separation of the Web and the Internet, and about electronic human rights, including privacy.

Looking to the future Berners-Lee commends the use of linked data and the huge advantages it will bring to science and research. He ends on a positive note: ‘Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.

Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee is Director of the World Wide Web Consortium; Director of the World Wide Web Foundation; Professor in the Engineering and Computer Science Departments, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

Over the last 18 months, Professor Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton have been working as Transparency and Open Data Advisers to UK Government, helping to free up central and local government data of all kinds, and creating the web site

Professor Berners-Lee is a founder Director of the Web Science Trust, established in 2009 to raise awareness of Web Science and to build the foundation and framework for this important new discipline. The University of Southampton Web Science Doctoral Training Centre provides fully-funded studentships for the four-year MSc/PhD programme in Web Science.

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