Big Interview

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: The founder of the World Wide Web

The principle of an open internet is facing its biggest ever threat. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web and VIP keynote speaker at ITW 2014, talks to Capacity about the evolution of his creation 25 years on.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee says “keeping the World Wide Web open” is his proudest achievement to date.

From his initial proposal in April 1989 to the opening day of ITW 2014, the web has continued to technologically evolve to become faster, more accessible and incredibly powerful. But none of these developments, could have been possible, according to Berners-Lee, if it was not maintained as an open platform.

“Most of the web, to this day, has been kept open for people to contribute to its growth,” he tells Capacity. “There is a good foundation to stimulate economic growth, to encourage startups, and most crucially, it has been important to maintain democracy.”

This principle is now under threat. In its 25th year, the web is facing its biggest ever challenge.

Debates over net neutrality continue to rage in the US and data mining is becoming an increasing contentious issue. Governments have also been criticised over using the web for spying, reducing the level of trust users have in it.

Market analysts, including the founder himself, concede that how the web will evolve in the future remains uncertain.

Maintaining the invention

Berners-Lee’s vision of a web that is open and works harmoniously has been maintained over the past 25 years. There has been the odd exception to the rule – Hosni Mubarak’s internet shutdown in 2011 and China’s Google ban remain fresh in Berners-Lee’s mind.

But the majority of the web has been accessible in most parts of the world where suitable investment in infrastructure has been made. He is concerned that this could be set to change. The internet is becoming ever more business-oriented and commercially driven, which could lead to a possible alteration of the entire open-internet principle.

ISPs in the US continue to argue against allowing content companies free access to their networks because of how much investment they need to make to continue to upgrade them. Commercial agreements between the parties could soon be in the offing. This would bypass the net neutrality principle, and could lead to a blocking of services if the appropriate tolls are not paid.

Berners-Lee does not buy into the ISPs’ argument. He hits out at the idea that ISPs like Comcast and Verizon are not being commercially compensated for the delivery of content services, claiming that the consumer makes up most of that cost.

“It is crazy to suggest they are not being compensated because anybody that has access to the internet pays the ISP,” he says.

He believes that the way the internet has traditionally worked could still be the best way to solve the issue of net neutrality. It is a solution which could see costs rise for the end user.

“Anybody that has access to the internet will have to pay their ISP – that’s a fact,” he says. “This money has historically been shared out in a fair way to ensure content is delivered between the last-mile provider, the middle-mile provider that manages the networks, like Level 3, and the ISP itself.”

By adopting such an approach, Berners-Lee believes the web will remain competitive for both ISPs and consumers, who will have to make choices over what type of service they require.

“It is mass market, which works well because I decide and pay for how much bandwidth I need, how fast I want my connection to be and connect to wherever I need to. An ISP needs to identify what services I need from them and how much they want to charge me,” he says.

Berners-Lee warns that by levying such charges against a video streaming company like Netflix, it could hinder innovation on the internet altogether.

“The idea that Netflix will have to pay every ISP in every little town for access to their networks is untenable and no way to run a network,” he says. “Such laws could make it impossible for the web to ever facilitate the creation of another innovative little startup.”

The World Wide Web goes mobile

Berners-Lee confesses he is not at all surprised about how the web has evolved to become accessible on smartphones and tablets. He reveals to Capacity that the initial design for the web 25 years ago was one that was designed to work independent of device, which was always the underlying goal.

“Every website was designed to work independent of device, and we launched a web consortium several years ago to showcase this,” he says. “We are likely to see over 60% of the world’s emerging market population using the web solely on a mobile platform.”

The founder of the World Wide Web gave the opening keynote speech for ITW 2014 and heralded the importance wholesalers continue to have in the development of the system. Wholesale carriers have been at odds for years over regulation and the possibility of being reduced to dumb pipes, where carriers add very little to the overall innovation of technology.

Berners-Lee tells Capacity that the work the wholesale community does remains important for the web, and being described as a utility service is by no means a bad thing.

“Traditionally, telecoms operators have tried to make money in lots of different ways, by developing solutions to aid the development of the internet,” he says. “It’s good to think about the internet as a utility because it is something that is very core to modern-day life.”

By trading in connectivity, the wholesale community continues to facilitate continued growth and investment in faster, more reliable and robust networks.

The long-term opportunity for wholesalers to operate as a utility service now lies in delivering their networks in a competitive way.

“It is the job of a power company to keep the internet running and wholesale providers can serve that purpose,” he says. “The internet can be delivered fast, reliably, expensively and even cheaply.”

Berners-Lee tells Capacity he is astonished by how telcos have developed solutions to get data from one side of the planet to another so quickly, reflecting the “amazing speed of change in telecoms”.

“If you imagine the rate of change that has happened over the internet, it is incomparable to anything else. No-one has ever built a train to go 100 times faster or a million times faster than when it was first built,” he adds.

Threats and opportunities

Berners-Lee explains that there is now a battleground to control the internet, with governments taking a bigger role in how people access the service. And with spying over the web becoming an increasing issue, he warns against political institutions using the technology for political purposes.

“Spying on the internet is insidious,” he says. “Some companies may block part of the web because they are told to by the government – it’s not something I’m in favour of but at least it’s visible."

Berners-Lee is aware that the web is continuing to evolve, with social media companies playing a bigger role in bringing it to emerging markets.

Facebook, through its initiative, aims to provide affordable access to areas of the world that are not yet connected. While Berners-Lee commends the initiative, he is concerned that people in unconnected parts of the world will think the entire World Wide Web is centralised on Facebook.

“It is concerning that, through, phones will only ever go to the Facebook homepage,” he says. “The bandwidth market today is an open platform for content. It will not be good for the development of the web in Africa for example, if they had to pay to access websites other than Facebook.”

What remains evident, 25 years on, is the opportunities for the web to continue to evolve appear endless, with or without an open internet. Berners-Lee says one of the most spiritually uplifting things about his creation is the collaboration he has seen between people internationally.

“There’s been a real spirit within the international community to bring the internet to every part of the globe,” he says.

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