This article was first published in 2011
Twenty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web among a small circle of fellow computer enthusiasts. Today, the 56-year-old Briton remains one of the internet’s most vigorous advocates. Its vast success, however, has had a downside: it has exposed him to a bombardment of requests from visionaries, obsessives and rubberneckers, as well as hordes of children demanding help with school projects. All expect him to exist as some kind of open-source human being.
Berners-Lee has never been an enthusiastic self-publicist. Nowadays, he shelters behind carapaces of email gateways and protective staff. He seldom gives interviews. If you’re not persistent and pertinent, you may not even earn a rebuff. “I’m quite busy,” he explains – a huge understatement – when eventually we talk on the phone.
“I have built a moat around myself, along with ways over that moat so that people can ask questions. What I do has to be a function of what I can do, not a function of what people ask me to do.” (He tends to use techy terms such as “function” quite a lot. He doesn’t mind “geek”, either.)
That the creator of the web – a father of two children, separated from his wife and based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he pursues his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has to live like an electronic Howard Hughes is just one of the many paradoxes that his invention has thrown up over the past two decades.
Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is campaigning for ever more openness, pushing for the internet to exist as a free-for-all, unfettered by creeping government interference or commercial intrigue. He believes that access to the internet should be a human right.
Born to mathematician parents in west London in June 1955, Berners-Lee studied at Oxford University, graduating with a First in physics in 1976. In 1980, he joined the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, better known as Cern, as a consultant but left a year later to become director of the tech firm Image Computer Systems.
Returning to Cern in 1984, he started working on hypertext to help researchers share information. His new project could easily have been dismissed as another case of a back-room enthusiast tinkering with clunky, electronic networks: even though he had the ability to construct a computer using a soldering iron and an old television set, Berners-Lee was just one of many sandal-wearing scientists.
“I wanted to build a creative space, something like a sandpit where everyone could play together,” he says now. “Life was very simple. I was too busy to think about the bigger questions. I was writing specs for the web, writing the code. My priority was getting more people to use it, looking for communities who might adopt it. I just wanted the thing to take off.”
Berners-Lee formally introduced his hobby-built system to the world on 6 August 1991 by posting a message on an internet bulletin board for fellow hypertext program developers. That day, he put the world’s first proper website online. It explained what a website was and gave details of how to create one. Neither initiative caused any immediate interest.
It feels odd to picture him struggling to convince people of the web’s potential. “It was just a load of hard work,” he says – “getting up in the morning and thinking, ‘What the hell will I do today? Should I ask people at Cern to instal browsers? Should I get more servers running, write more code for browsers, or should I talk at a conference? Or should I do my own website as an example for other people?'”
At the time, computer fans were an obscure minority, their efforts loudly derided by analogue hipsters. Steadily, however, the World Wide Web gained momentum as the limited group of early users – computer scientists and military and government agencies – expanded until it attracted a critical mass in the mid-1990s. Now, according to the analyst Internet World Stats, over 30 per cent of the global population – more than two billion people – have online access.
Berners-Lee could have become a billionaire by charging royalties for his invention. Instead, in 1994, he gave it to the world for free, without a patent. “If I had made the web into a product, it would have been in somebody’s interest to make an incompatible version of it,” he says.
He liberated his precocious brainchild while trying, like any conscientious parent, to guide its path. To this end, he created the World Wide Web Consortium, to help spread high technical standards for building websites, browsers and devices such as televisions that offer access to web content. It hardly sounds like the glamorous end of the action – but then, Berners-Lee is known for preferring to live modestly, driving clapped-out cars and wearing cagoules. He concedes that the web has grown far beyond the scope of his first imaginings. “I did not dream that it would attain its present scale. It was just supposed to be successful . . . Then again, it is supposed to be the World Wide Web.”
The vast expansion of the web demands a change of ethos, he believes. We should no longer consider internet access as optional. “Originally, the web was intended to be universal, to work for any culture or any software, but we did not say that it should work for everyone as individuals. That wasn’t important when you didn’t need the web to function in everyday life. Now, things such as 0800 numbers are being replaced by websites. If you are not on the web, you will have problems accessing services.”
He worries that the web may become a new cause of global inequality, rather than a positive force for mass collaboration. “The world’s urban poor and the illiterate are going to be increasingly disadvantaged and are in danger of being left behind. The web has added a new dimension to the gap between the first world and the developing world. We have to start talking about a human right to connect.”
That’s not just talk. In 2008, he launched the World Wide Web Foundation, which campaigns to promote internet usage. Back then, he thought that global expansion was desirable. Now, he sees it as essential.
For many of us in the wealthy west, the web has brought the opposite problem. Connectivity has left us constantly at our employers’ beck and call. Six in ten workers in the US check their emails while on holiday, according to a survey by the communications company Xobni. Conversations are seldom completed without someone checking a smartphone. We seem unable to switch off.
Berners-Lee acknowledges the problem. “We will find a way to deal with this new medium and learn how to use it appropriately. We are still learning the ground rules. Certainly, one-to-one time without any electronics is something that people should treasure.”
He quickly returns to a favourite theme: technology will bring us the answers to the problems caused by technology. “Every now and then, someone will invent a nifty new program to help us to cope with this,” he says brightly. “When we are in our meeting room, we have laptops open and running. They enable people to join the meetings while working in other countries. They also help to run the debate. The laptops feature bots that tell us when it’s our turn to talk. They remind us what we want to contribute. In cases like this, face-to-face interactions are enhanced.”
For Berners-Lee, communication holds the most promise of solving all of our trickiest problems. When I ask him what he is most proud of achieving, he says: “That the World Wide Web is an open platform. I’m pleased that it was designed very cleanly so that programs can talk to each other across the net. It means that there is one information space where you can put everything. I am chuffed to bits when someone tells me, for example, that they found some medical information online that has really helped their life.”
His greatest fear is that the opposite might happen – that the web could be killed off by a large company or government. “That is why I campaign for commercial net neutrality,” he says. “If large corporations control our access to the internet and determine which websites we can go to, we will lose its openness and its democratic nature. We can all help to campaign for the right to connect. It is essential that we keep the space open as a white sheet of paper that anyone can use, without being spied on, blocked and diverted.”
Nevertheless, government encroachment is already rife, according to data from the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Almost all of the developed world’s internet is moderately to pervasively censored by the authorities. Only a small number of nations, including Mongolia and Madagascar, have a completely open web.
Countries such as China, Iran and Egypt can even switch off the service. Proposed laws in the United States would enable the government to shut down websites that allegedly breach copyright laws. Net-freedom lobbyists fear that these powers could be misused to block political campaigns, for instance. And the Digital Economy Act, passed last year in the UK, gave the government powers to instruct service providers to cut off the internet account of anyone suspected of copyright infringement.
Berners-Lee also worries about the web’s potential as a conduit for extremism. “I was following a Twitter debate on net neutrality recently, when I realised that no one was saying anything in the middle ground. They were all vehement and angry. It may be the case that, with fast communications, reasoned opinions just don’t propagate. These conduits accelerate people’s emotions.
“Also, you get conspiracy theorists and religious cults emerging. Every now and again, human beings get organised in ways such as the Nazi takeover of Germany or the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. These were geographically limited – but could they spread through the internet in the name of some cause or religion?”
Despite these concerns, Berners-Lee remains resolutely optimistic about the future of his invention. “The web is now coming of age. We have to look at it and decide how best to use it for science and technology. I think it can do uniquely important things,” he says.
These are big aspirations. A couple of decades ago, they would have sounded wildly optimistic; now, they sound eminently reasonable. If an inventor with a more typically inflated ego had created the World Wide Web, he would no doubt be declaring his genius and demanding the right to lead his creation into its promised land. Not Berners-Lee. His ambitions are characteristically self-effacing. No one person can lead the web, he believes. Humanity and the internet will progress only if our egos coalesce in one global effort.
“With many of the significant problems we have now got, such as cancer, no one person can hold all the pieces of the puzzle together in their head. The challenge is whether we can put some pieces of that puzzle together from different heads around the world.
“When I started the web, I wanted to foster creative interconnectivity, in which people from all around the world can build something together. It’s about trying to create a sort of human meta-brain – getting connected brains to function as a greater human brain. With these things, we have to trust in humanity. I think human nature, on balance, is wonderful. If we use the web properly, we can enhance that.”