An Evening with Tim Berners-Lee and our President

September 28, 2014

On Saturday evening (27 September) my son and I joined a largish group of young and old at the Royal Festival Hall to hear Tim Berners-Lee in conversation with our President, Richard Susskind, as part of the Web We Want Festival. (You can watch the interview on youtube {here:] This is part of the festivities associated with the 25th anniversary of the invention of the Web. The event attracted an eclectic audience, from the mildly curious to the hard-core computer whizz-kids. Some of the audience were very young, most were in their twenties and early thirties, and a few had grey hairs. Many of the older generation – like me – came with their children.

It was a surprisingly intimate occasion, despite the grand scale and surroundings of the RFH. Berners-Lee and Susskind seemed relaxed, seated in isolation on the very large RFH stage. They sat on a couple of chairs that looked as though they might have been brought in from the RFH café just a few minutes before the event started. We were able to ‘earwig’ on a conversation that the two might well have had over a quiet coffee. It was only towards the end of the event when a heckler noisily interrupted their conversation that they seemed to notice the large audience, just a few feet away.

At the prompting of CEO of the RFH in her introduction to the event, Susskind started by ‘probing into the mind of Berners-Lee’ and asked about his childhood. We found out that he had grown up in a mathematical household and that his father had been one of the early computer pioneers, working for Ferranti. Berners-Lee had built his own computers from an early age but studied physics before working at CERN and getting involved in programing activities there. He had been frustrated in his ability to access documents stored in computers in other systems and locations. The multiplicity of access protocols at the time made it almost impossible to do this, even though the computer systems were starting to be linked in one way or another. His immediate vision for the Web at the time was as a form of documentary collaboration tool, enabling contributions to be made to documents to enhance the sum of knowledge through each contributor adding their own skills and knowledge. Although he didn’t say so – and he was extraordinarily careful not to mention any companies or brand-names all evening – Berners Lee may have had a sort of Wikipedia approach in mind at the time.

Asked what pleased him about the Web over the last 25 years, Berners-Lee talked about the open and collaborative nature of the Web. This is clearly consistent with his original and on-going vision for the Web. He commented on his Tweet at the Olympics Opening Ceremony, ‘This is for Everyone’ and seemed touchingly embarrassed at its triteness but emphasised the basic thought behind the idea.

Moving on, Susskind asked what worries Berners-Lee most about the Web. His main worries relate to the extent to which the open and collaborative nature of the Web is being challenged. He mentioned the problems over State censorship limiting Web access in various countries. He said that this had been a concern for him well before Snowden and he talked at some length about State surveillance. He commented that in countries where Web access is not limited, the Web can be monitored to track the activities of political opponents and dissidents and be used to ‘round them up’. He also discussed the risks associated with large company Web ‘silos’ and the lack of exposure this brings to the benefits of the Web if people simply use a single site. (Presumably Facebook – but Berners-Lee is very careful not to mention any specific names). Web users then don’t experience the range of opportunities that the Web has to offer. The increasing lack of ‘net neutrality’ and the prioritisation of net traffic is also a concern.

He doesn’t see lack of Web access as being a big problem at the moment. With almost 3 billion people on a worldwide basis now having Web access he sees this as more of a success than a problem for those that do not have Web access. He talked positively of projects to produce very low cost Web access devices which would make the Web accessible by an even greater range of the world’s population.

He is particularly concerned that the decentralised and ad hoc management of the Web over the last 25 years, which has allowed the open and collaborative nature of the Web to develop, is not sufficiently powerful to resist the commercial and political challenges that it now faces. Oddly enough, the example he gave was that of a commercial company setting up a business on the Web. He said that the company needs to have certainty that it will be able to deliver its services using a Web that is stable and provides the delivery mechanisms to give an assurance of certainty in the delivery of the organisation’s services.

His ‘Big Idea’ as a potential solution for this lack of certainty and one of the key themes of the ‘Web We Want’ is to explore the need for a ‘Digital Magna Carta’. He recognises that his thinking on this concept is formative. He is encouraging a ‘crowd-sourcing’ approach to the development of the ideas around this concept. What he has in mind is a sort of Declaration of Rights for the Web, which would then be codified in national legal systems around the world.

He thinks that a Declaration of Rights for the Web could protect the open and collaborative nature of the Web. It would help to maintain it as a resource for ‘everyone’ and to avoid it being taken over by a small number of organisations (State and commercial) with relatively narrow interests.

It is a shame that Berners-Lee did not have time – and the questions raised did not ask him – to comment on the commercial issues of who pays for an open and collaborative Web. Perhaps this is a question for him to give a view on or for us to debate at a later event. This will not be resolved by a Declaration of Rights for the Web. In order for the Web to remain open and collaborative there needs to be a commonality between the commercial interests that shape the Web and the nature of the Web itself. A Declaration in itself is unlikely to be able to restrain the commercial forces that will inevitably shape the future of the Web.

That being said, Berners-Lee’s point about the need to move on from fragmentary and ad hoc governance of the Web is crucially important. The nature of the Web is a key factor of the society that we live in and its future should be an important area of debate. We all should take time to engage in the Web We Want processes. The concept of a Declaration of Rights for the Web is one which many SCL members will have views on, probably quite strong views. The RFH is arranging further Web We Want festivals over the next 12 months. They will take place on 28 – 30 November 2014 and 29 – 31 May 2015.

It may be that we ought to arrange SCL events around this process in order to provide a more coordinated contribution to the debate. Our President may well want to be involved and perhaps our Technology Law Futures Event next year should have a focus around this theme.

Let us know how you would like to see the SCL take part in these processes.

This interview is available on YouTube here