Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had sharp words to say over the weekend about the future of the internet. Speaking at the Web We Want Festival in London, England, the scientist sharply criticized recent events surrounding the once-free internet, specifically mentioning spying on civilians and Facebook’s highly controversial Internet.org scheme.
Berners-Lee said the west had “lost the moral leadership” on privacy and surveillance, shown by the shocking revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Britain’s Queen recently backed the newly elected conservative government of David Cameron to create systems like the NSA has in order to track everyone’s web and social media use and build detailed files on all citizens.
Of the new legislation, Berners-Lee said:
The discussion [in the Queen’s Speech] of increased monitoring powers is something which is a red flag … this discussion is a global one, it’s a big one, it’s something that people are very engaged with, they think it’s very important, and they’re right, because it is very important for democracy, and it’s very important for business.
So this sort of debate is something that should be allowed to happen around legislation. It’s really important that legislation is left out for a seriously long comment period
He alo lumped Facebook’s sneaky Internet.org initiative into the same category as rampant spying, saying that users should “just say no” to the so-called ‘Zero-rated’ plans that offer cut down versions of the web which favor the big companies that are giving the service away.
On the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, Berners-Lee and the Web We Want festival have convened to produce a Magna Carta for the 21st century. But while the document is intended to inspire change globally, Berners-Lee bemoaned the loss of Britain’s “moral high ground”, following the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013.
“It has lost a lot of that moral high ground, when people saw that GCHQ was doing things that even the Americans weren’t,” Berners-Lee said. “So now I think, if Britain is going to establish a leadership situation, it’s going to need to say: ‘We have solid rules of privacy, which you as an individual can be assured of, and that you as a company can be assured of.’”
That way, he said, “if you want to start a company in Britain, then you can offer privacy to your users, because you’ll know that our police force won’t be demanding the contents of your discs willy-nilly, they’ll only be doing so under a very well defined and fairly extreme set of circumstances.”
He accepts it was an uphill battle to get people in Britain to care, however. “This is a wild generalization, but traditionally, people in the US are brought up in kindergarten to learn to distrust the government. That’s what the constitution’s for. Whereas people in the UK are brought up more to trust the government by default, and distrust corporations. People in America tend not to have a natural distrust of large corporations.
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something. Only giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
Facebook’s insidious plan is designed to raise a whole generation of internet users from poor, undeveloped countries, on an internet that is hand curated by Facebook. The company hopes that people won’t notice how it favor its content and outright bans rivals, such as Google’s Youtube, in order to get more ad revenue for itself.
The plan is so controversial that large companies in India, a test market, have pulled out of the scheme after initially supporting it because of severe public backlash. The scheme has also been loudly denounced by human rights activists.