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Sir Tim: From ’89 to 404

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the EU’s Right to be Forgotten.


As the World Wide Web celebrates its first quarter century, Chris Middleton hears from its prime mover, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and asks him about the Right to be Forgotten.

PEOPLE SHORTTwenty-five years ago, a quiet Englishman called Tim changed the world. We’re still dealing with the consequences and will be for generations to come. Today, that man is known as Sir Tim Berners-Lee – or ‘TimBL’ – the man who invented the World Wide Web.

At the time, his idea for improving information management at a particle physics laboratory, CERN, didn’t seem like a generation-defining invention that would change the lives of everyone on the planet. But such innovations rarely arrive with fireworks and fanfares; they emerge quietly in back rooms and laboratories among people who history sometimes forgets. That nearly happened: Sir Tim sent his proposal in a memo that languished in his boss’s in-tray for months. Fortunately, it didn’t stay there.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim-Berners Lee, prime over of the Web. (Corbis)

“I wrote the memo in 1989 but no one picked up on it. Nothing happened,” said Sir Tim at the IP EXPO conference in London in October 2014. “Then a year and a bit later my boss said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead?’ He had a twinkle in his eye, and that twinkle in the eye was an important part of the development of the Web.”

The World Wide Web is the dynamic linkage of documents, including text, images, video or sound, to other documents over the internet. “I had this itch that I wanted to fix [CERN's] awful confusion of documentation systems,” explained Sir Tim. “I had this cool idea to integrate them all, for it to be decentralised.”

Since 1989, the Web has become an inspiring and empowering tool that can give any human being a voice as loud as a multinational, a fact that many large organisations are still coming to terms with. Some are falling, others are breaking up, new ones are rising; none are immune to its effects.

And the first human being with that global platform was Sir Tim: he built the first webpage, which told people what the Web is and how it works, and the first browser to access it. Today, among other things, he heads W3C, the body that oversees how it all works – this great and ever-growing library of human experience, including what Sir Tim acknowledges is its “dark side”.

‘Not there to judge’

“There’s a dark side to humanity, but the Web is not there to judge. The medium has got to be neutral. The platform doesn’t have any attitude about what you do with it. Net neutrality is really important. You’ve known it all your lives,” he told a new generation of young, ambitious technologists at the IP EXPO event.

And every aspect of our lives has been affected by the Web. Despite that, Sir Tim remains a modest man – one who makes sudden movements when he talks as if his whole body is so full of ideas that they’re bursting out of him. The impact of that intellectual passion is everywhere around us.

But despite his influence on our lives to date, Sir Tim doesn’t see any role for himself in what used to be called ‘futurology’: “I don’t like giving predictions,” he said. “I prefer to say what I’d like to happen. It’s important to remember that the future is something we build. A cool future isn’t something that we can just sit there waiting to happen. You’re the people who are going to build it.”

For Sir Tim, openness, information sharing and net neutrality – the fact that no organisation or country owns or controls the internet – are essential for the Web to keep flourishing. That openness was there from day one and any attempt to impose proprietary restrictions would have limited its original expansion, and would do so again today.

“The Web is like a blank sheet of paper. If you had an ‘ethical web’ where you could only do nice things, it would be like having a piece of paper that you couldn’t write certain text on,” he said. For Sir Tim, prime mover of the Web, his invention must remain a “platform without attitude, a platform without centre, without permission, and with no central point of control”.

Rethink your approach

Today, those principles can have commercial value, but only if organisations stop applying industrial-revolution thinking to a post-industrial model. Sir Tim believes that open data is core to the success of today’s digitally enabled economy, and that the freedom to innovate around open data is a superior model to corporations owning ‘siloed’ data – a practice that he describes as “boring and dis-enabling”.


The Open Data Institute (ODI) runs a certification programme to help organisations show that their data is open, and easy to use and share.

For him, merging data sources is exciting because it allows society to progress along lines that are beneficial to everyone. “I’m not interested in your data; I’m interested in merging your data with other data,” he said. “Your data will never be as exciting as what I can merge it with. Don’t give me a nice website with visualisations of your data. Give me the raw data, so I can merge it with what I want, so I can find out what that data looks like next to this data. That’s open data.”

The Open Data Institute, based in London’s Tech City (aka ‘Silicon Roundabout’) is one of several projects that he’s associated with. It aims to link new technology startups with anonymised data sets, many of them from the public sector.

Privacy isn’t dead

So with all of this under his belt, it’s surprising to be told that Sir Tim rejects the idea that privacy is dead and dismisses the notion that people should have no rights over data that describes their private lives. “Privacy is important,” he said. “People say ‘privacy is dead, get over it’. I don’t agree. The idea that privacy is dead is hopeless and sad. We have to build systems that allow for privacy.

“Think about how you function as a family, as a group. You function by having an information boundary that describes that group. It’s the only way society works, or a family works. We need to move towards a new world where people work socially.”

And despite his plea for openness and non-proprietary solutions, Sir Tim also believes that individuals should own any data that describes them personally and be able to choose how other people use it. “I don’t want companies to use my medical data, for instance, to sell me insurance premiums,” he said, “but if I’m in a car accident, I want my doctor to be able to access any data he needs instantly.”

Companies should be more transparent about what they do, he explained, and must show greater respect for people’s privacy – for example by actively informing them about how their private information will be used and for what purpose. “Turn tracking around,” he urged delegates at the IP EXPO event “make tracking something that we do to the people who use our data.”

In effect, he advocates a form of voluntary commercial licensing, in which people can opt in to their data being used if they support the aims of the company, project, or organisation. Such a level of openness and transparency would breed greater trust, he said. Sir Tim believes that these things are vital to get right today because of the likely impact of our decisions in the future, when our world will increasingly be governed by artificial intelligence: by computers talking to each other, about us.

Millennial tensions

It’s extraordinary to think that no one under the age of 25 has known a world without the Web. They’re the millennials, the ‘digital natives’: young people whose own creativity will doubtless change the world again in ways we can’t yet imagine. Meanwhile, the social media revolution represents a further culture change, one that has occurred across the globe within every teenager’s lifetime.

As a result, those parts of the world that move more slowly than technology and teen fashion, such as national governments and law enforcement agencies, are still playing catch-up up with the transformation brought about by an older generation of computer scientists – most of whom, like Sir Tim, could walk down the street unrecognised.

Edward Snowden

Whistleblower Edward Snowden.

These things have certainly been playing on the minds of governments, as the Snowden revelations proved. The challenge to a truly global vision, therefore, is clear: most laws are made nationally, and in many countries laws are becoming ‘more national’, not less, in some cases in direct response to the Web’s global reach and disruptive influence.

This can be seen in the UK’s ISP filtering, for example, in China’s banning or censorship of content, in the EU’s attempts to limit America’s digital footprint, and in the fact that governments worldwide have been using the Web to spy on their citizens. Whether or not those responses are desirable, they’re real.

To be, or not to be, forgotten?

So what does Sir Tim make of the recent debate about erasing data from the public domain, removing links to stories that, for a variety of reasons, someone might want to hide from the public? He believes that if a momentum gathers behind such ideas, then more and more webpages will go ’404′: history will start being deleted and the open Web will be lost in a generational journey from ’89 to ’404′.

“I spend half my time here [in the UK] and half my time in the States, and the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ is viewed very differently on the two sides [of the Atlantic],” Sir Tim told the Strategist. “On the US side, free speech is such a fundamental part of the American constitution that the idea that you could take down something that is true would be an anathema. People find that horrific. But if something isn’t true, then a right for something to be removed, to be taken down… [Sir Tim's meaning here is unclear]. Plus slander laws and libel laws already exist.

“But there’s an interesting area in the middle: what if something’s true, but we would like that to be ‘water under the bridge’? One thing to do would be to move to a world in which we have better ideas about the appropriate use of data.”

Sir Tim urges companies to rethink their attitudes to data, to stop regarding their drive for information as an unstoppable commercial land-grab that gives them rights and power over people’s lives. “If someone defaulted on a mortgage way back in the past, a bank could declare: ‘We will not use that information, we will only use stuff from the past ten years’. A company could say: ‘We will not look at your social networking sites. We will look at your bank statements, not where you spend your evenings.’”

Red tape in the sunset

So should this be a matter for regulation, which would tie up the Web in yet more regional or national red tape? Sir Tim doesn’t think so. “It’s important for organisations to decide proactively that they will do that themselves. We’re not talking about the Right to be Forgotten here, we’re talking about a right for information not to be used. We’re not saying that the information itself shouldn’t exist, we’re talking about the right for information to only be used for appropriate purposes.”


‘TimBL’: No desire to be a ‘futurologist’.

That said, press coverage of the Right to be Forgotten has become confused with a recent European ruling obliging Google to consider individual requests to remove links from its search results. That judgement has – rightly – focused attention on the suppression of fair comment, free speech, and responsible journalism. But the focus on Google itself is unhelpful, if for no other reason than Google is not the Web, it’s just one fallible company – even if it’s many people’s preferred entry point to the online world.

There are specific instances where a right to have certain types of data securely removed from online platforms might be beneficial to the very people Sir Tim would like to protect: ordinary citizens. For example, it’s convenient when ecommerce sites retain our credit card data, delivery details and purchase histories because it saves having to re-input them. But it’s less convenient when those sites are hacked, sometimes by organised criminals who post the data for commercial gain.

The data security of eBay, LinkedIn, Adobe, and several cloud platforms has been breached in recent months. Anyone can close their account with a website or service provider, but that’s not the same thing as a right to insist that, should we stop using an online service, our private data is securely erased from its servers. After all, many companies sell that data to advertisers and partners and so benefit from it financially. Would it be unreasonable to have a right to request that such data – specifically addresses, purchase histories, and financial data on ecommerce platforms – is destroyed?

Security, security, security

It’s an issue that can only become more pressing in the years ahead, because it’s apparent that while some organisations have failed in their duty of customer care, not every company that suffers a data breach is a novice or a naif, or has failed to take standard precautions.

Eighty-three million addresses were compromised in the August 2014 hack of America’s largest bank, JP Morgan, including those of seven million businesses. Tal Klein, VP of cybersecurity firm Adallom, said that the sophisticated nature of the hack suggests that data security itself has been compromised. “What we are waking up to is that the fundamental nature of security is broken,” he told Reuters.

So does Sir Tim regret security not being built into the fabric of the Web from day one? “When I made the Web… the technology was designed to look to a developer as much as possible like something he’d come across before,” he said. “So he could look at that and say, ‘I could do that’.

“I’ve seen other systems where people have tried to be much more draconian. Imagine that the form field was actually sacred, that you knew for certain who an email was from. Imagine if a public key cryptography system had been brought in where everyone who sent a mail had to have a public key, then maybe… [again Sir Tim's precise meaning here is unclear]. But then maybe mail would never have taken off.”

Here’s to the next quarter century. We can be sure that Sir Tim’s own contributions will never be forgotten. TS


The Strategist says

Sir Tim’s views are invariably signal, rather than noise, and it would be foolish ever to discount them. His thoughts on the land-grab for information and organisations’ belief that they have a right to commercialise data without its subject’s active consent are timely. Openness breeds trust, and trust in digital systems seems to be falling, even as our reliance on them increases. The decisions we make today must be the right ones and should genuinely be in everyone’s interests.
Chris Middleton is founder and editor in chief of Strategist magazine and



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