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'From Utopia to Dystopia' and Back Again: Internet Pioneer Tim Berners-Lee Calls for 'New Web' That Reclaims Original Democratic Principles

He dreams of a system "in which people have complete control of their own data; applications and data are separated from each other; and a user's choice for each are separate."

Tim Berners-Lee

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee gave a speech about the future of the internet on Wednesday at MIT. (Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre/Flickr/cc)

As open internet advocates pressure governments and major tech companies to respect the free flow of information online and users' privacy, World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee spoke Wednesday about how his creation has gone "from utopia to dystopia in 29 short years," and how it can be reimagined "to empower the hopes we had for the original web."

Noting that experts say 2018 is first year that more than half the world's population will be connected to the internet, Berners-Lee gave a lecture at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in which he outlined the underlying principles that guided the web's development in the 1990s and proposed a more positive future than its current path suggests.

"The assumption we made in the '90s was that, if we succeed in keeping an open web and a neutral internet, there would emerge a cornucopia of constructive, collaborative things and the world would become better," Berners-Lee said. Speaking about the prevailing mindset among his colleagues at the time, he said they believed it wouldn't matter "how much junk" was out there.

"It's not email, it's not forced upon you," he said. "You only have to read what you want to read. If there's a lot of bad stuff out there, it's okay because you don't have to read it. What could go wrong?"

Like many inventions, over nearly three decades, the web has evolved in unexpected ways, which has led Berners-Lee to call for the creation of "a new web," or a reimagining of the internet as we know it so that it can live up to its founders' expectations.

Such an endeavor would entail bringing together "the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts, and academia" to establish a system "in which people have complete control of their own data; applications and data are separated from each other; and a user's choice for each are separate."

The overarching goal? "To build a new web which will again empower science and democracy."

"Let's re-de-centralize the web," Berners-Lee declared. "It was designed as a de-centralized system, but now everyone is on platforms like Facebook," he added, detailing how social media can be polarizing to a degree that it threatens democracy.

"We read things from narrower and narrower circles, and meet more people just like us. These people support the views we express, which validates us and makes us feel more and more sure of our opinions, and makes others seem more and more weird," he explained. "Social media maybe fun for the individual but destructive of society."

His comments build on concerns frequently raised by open internet and digital privacy rights advocates regarding how tech companies such as Facebook manage user data and try to control what information users can access—whether through charging premiums to view certain content in the absence of net neutrality protections or acting as a gatekeeper of news.

"This year we're approaching 50 percent of the world being is on the web," Berners-Lee concluded. "We have to continue fighting to keep the internet open and free."

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