He revolutionized the world by inventing the World Wide Web. Decades later, though, MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee is warning consumers of his creation against Google and Facebook, as well as the government’s attempts to censor the Internet.
In an interview published by the Guardian on Wednesday, Berners-Lee celebrates the marvels made possible by the Web but cautions users to be weary of what companies could be doing with thought-to-be-private info. While the Internet offers endless answers, solutions and opportunities for entertainment, the British-born professor warns that the companies that consumers invest their personal data into might not necessarily be their friend.
"My computer has a great understanding of my state of fitness, of the things I'm eating, of the places I'm at. My phone understands from being in my pocket how much exercise I've been getting and how many stairs I've been walking up and so on,” says the scientist.
As helpful as that could be, though, Berners-Lee says it has its downside.
"One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don't,” he explains. “There are no programs that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me."
Who is benefiting then? Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple, which are monopolizing not just the Internet, but their user’s information.
"It's interesting that people throughout the existence of the web have been concerned about monopolies. They were concerned [about] Netscape having complete control over the browser market until suddenly they started worrying that Microsoft had complete control of the browser market. So I think one of the lessons is that things can change very rapidly,” he says.
Berners-Lee’s comments eerily mirror warnings made earlier in the week to the Guardian by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of search engine giant Google. Discussing the hold the company has over its users, Brin said in his interview that consumers are forced to “play by their rules,” which, he added, are “really restrictive.”
“The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine is the Web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation,” said Brin.
On his part, Berners-Lee says that as companies monopolize out way of receiving and delivering information, consumers are quickly becoming more and more vulnerable to be left at their mercy. In attacking Apple over how they attempt to force their customers into using their own applications, the professor says it should be up to the users to decide how they want to control their own devices.
"I should be able to pick which applications I use for managing my life, I should be able to pick which content I look at, and I should be able to pick which device I use, which company I use for supplying my internet, and I'd like those to be independent choices,” he says.
Berners-Lee adds that the Web has seen some monumental changes as it has developed since the 1980s. As people trust their personal and private information with companies that are big today, though, he cautions that they might someday be at the mercy of websites gone kaput.
"Before the web, Gopher [an early alternative to the world wide web] was taking over the whole internet, it seemed, very quickly. I remember in an internet engineering meeting, somebody remarked that it was incredible how quickly it was taking over. One of the wiser people said: 'Well it's funny, it's amazing how quickly people on the internet can pick something up, but it's also amazing how quickly they can drop it,’” he tells the Guardian.
"Whatever social site, wherever you put your data, you should make sure that you can get it back and get it back in a standard form. And in fact if I were you I would do that regularly, just like you back up your computer … maybe our grandchildren depending on which website we use may or may not be able to see our photos."
That isn’t to say that the corporations invested in the Internet are the only parties to cause concern. As the US Congress tries to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) under the guise of cybersecurity concerns, the founder of the Web tells the Guardian that the government is going to cause a major Internet collapse impacting the rest of the world.
"[It] is threatening the rights of people in America, and effectively rights everywhere, because what happens in America tends to affect people all over the world,” he says of CISPA. “Even though the SOPA and PIPA acts were stopped by huge public outcry, it's staggering how quickly the US government has come back with a new, different, threat to the rights of its citizens."
Congress is currently considering several would-be laws, including CISPA, which have caused advocates for an open Internet to rally against them in opposition. Activists are currently in the midst of “Stop Cyber Spying Week” to raise awareness of Washington’s plans for the Web. These protests precede “Cybersecurity Week,” when lawmakers will discuss CISPA and other acts at the Capitol Building.