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“The web belongs to all of us”: Q&A with the web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Not everyone knows the name Sir Tim Berners-Lee, but they certainly know his invention: the World Wide Web. And if being responsible for one of the most important innovations in human history wasn’t enough, early on Berners-Lee made the generous and vital decision to give it away for free.

In the new documentary ForEveryone.Net, filmmaker Jessica Yu explores how Berners-Lee, who is also a member of our Board of Trustees, came to create the World Wide Web. Inevitably, the film goes beyond the origins of the web to make a strong case for keeping the web free, open, and accessible to everyone, pointing to the recent battle to maintain net neutrality in the US as an example.

After a recent screening of the film at the Ford Foundation, Berners-Lee answered some questions about his great invention, why access to the Internet is a human right, and what it really means for the Internet to be open “for everyone.”

You invented the World Wide Web to solve the problem of interconnectivity between different types of computers. Did you have any idea then that solving this one problem would transform the world?

Well, I did call it the World Wide Web, but never expected it to be so successful! I realized that the web technology had to be universal to work for any type of computer, but also any language, genre, or culture. That is why I pressed for it to be made available to everyone, forever, without patents or royalties. But in terms of speed of progress and the scope of applications, it was a happy surprise that it kept on growing.

What most surprised you about the web as it grew?

The outpouring of creative and collaborative energy from around the world was amazing to witness. Programmers from different corners of the world came together to tackle problems, entrepreneurs teamed up with hackers to build new businesses, and ordinary people from all walks of life found new ways to create, chat, and make friends. The enduring need to send pictures of kittens also took me by surprise.

What most concerned you about the web’s growth?

As the web’s equalizing power became ever more apparent, it also became clear that some governments and companies would try to shape or control it for their own purposes. I was determined to keep the web open and for everyone. That’s why I founded the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994, which builds the technical standards that underpin the web, and why I established the World Wide Web Foundation in 2009, which works to establish the open web as a public good and a basic right.

What are some of the biggest threats to maintaining a free and open Internet today?

Most of the threats to the open web come from some organization—be that a government or a corporation—wanting to control the web for its own benefit. There’s a long list of challenges that stem from this, but those keeping me awake at night include:

  • Personal control of data. Many of us part with our personal data without understanding the consequences. We need better systems to keep control of our personal data, so it truly benefits us.
  • The “balkanization” of the web. Many companies have and will try to be the complete online solution for their customers, giving them a curated and controlled experience. These “walled gardens” leave people deprived of the wild creativity out there on the open web—and also deprive new creative people and start-ups of their attention and business. Meanwhile, some governments are creating national sub-Internets, which often limit what users can do or experience for the benefit of the ruling regime. To realize the full benefits of the web, all people need to be able to access all of the Internet, all of the time.
  • Threats to net neutrality. Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Threats to it include the creation of paid “fast lanes” for some types of traffic, or the prioritization of certain web traffic in different ways, such as giving users free access to only selected applications. Governments also violate net neutrality when they block or censor content that might be uncomfortable for them.

Only a handful of countries have enacted laws or regulations protecting net neutrality. Why is net neutrality so important, and why aren’t we seeing a bigger push for these laws globally?

Net neutrality preserves the Internet as an equal, open platform of opportunity. Big companies shouldn’t be able to pay for special fast lanes and governments shouldn’t be allowed to block or slow down content they might not like.

However, the power of the open Internet means there will always be an incentive to try to control it for profit or to preserve power. We’ve seen this happen in the US and the EU in recent years, with attempts to break net neutrality. But it’s been inspiring to see ordinary users fight back in both of these regions and win stunning victories. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission enshrined net neutrality into law in 2015 after a grassroots campaign saw nearly 4 million comments sent to the regulator during a public consultation period. The European Parliament passed net neutrality rules in 2015, and in August 2016, after nearly half a million citizens insisted on clarity in important follow-up guidelines, the European Body of Regulators responded by issuing strong rules preserving net neutrality.

The Internet should be “for everyone” but 60 percent of the world’s population is still not connected. How can we get more people online—especially people living in poverty?

The key barrier keeping people off-line today is cost. In developed countries, a high-speed broadband connection usually costs less than 1 percent of a typical person’s income. But in the world’s least developed countries, just 1 GB of data each month costs around 15 percent of their income—more than most people can spend on their children’s education.

To get more people online, we need to drive costs down. But that’s not a simple job. Users, companies, and governments need to come together to understand what is keeping prices high in their country or region, and then take collaborative steps to address this. For example, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is bringing together a wide range of actors to determine and implement the policy solutions needed to break through the affordability barrier in developing countries. This task is especially important for enabling women, the poor, and other marginalized groups to access the web and the opportunities for social and economic empowerment Internet access provides.

Public access programs are another important piece of the puzzle. As well as looking to drive prices down, governments need to ensure that spaces like schools, hospitals, libraries, and other community hubs offer free Internet, especially those that market-based solutions will never reach.

Last, remember that supply is just one side of the equation. Equipping everyone with the right skills through widespread digital education is essential, and so is ensuring that the web is useful to local communities. Providing efficient government services online is one way to help.

You have called for access to the Internet to be recognized as a basic human right. Why? What would that mean in practice?

The web has become a public resource on which people, businesses, communities, and governments depend. It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium. The gap in empowerment between those who use it and those who cannot is growing. For those reasons, I believe Internet access should be a right.

In practice, I’d like to see national Internet Bills of Rights enacted in every country around the world. These would outline users’ rights and responsibilities, and citizens of the country would have a role in drafting these. This isn’t a pipe dream: Brazil passed the world’s first such bill in 2014 and Italy followed suit last year. Nigeria seems set to show leadership and become the first to pass a bill on the African continent. And the United Nations recently passed a landmark resolution recognizing the potential of the Internet to accelerate development and advance human rights.

What can people do today to help keep the Internet open?

The first and most important step is to recognize that the web belongs to all of us and that everyone’s voice is powerful. Then share this message with your family and friends.

You can also support the work of the World Wide Web Foundation, or find out what organizations are active on Internet rights issues in your country. By keeping in touch with these organizations, you can help them with the day-to-day work of keeping the web strong and open, and you can find out when some government or company near you is taking a step in the wrong direction—so you can join campaigns, protesting in the streets if necessary!

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