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Who runs the Internet?

At the Lib Dem Conference I spoke at a fringe meeting organised by Liberal Democrat Voice with this challenging title.

This is what I said - and if you like you can listen to the podcast:

I don’t know how Tim Berners-Lee casts his vote. But I do know that he is one of the great liberals, and one of the great democrats, of our age.

Now you may think that I am saying that because Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

And he did indeed do that in 1990, while working as a scientist for CERN.

But he did not pluck the idea of the Web out of thin air. Some of the basic technologies were already in place. The Internet itself had been constructed in 1965. Hypertext, with embedded links to other pages, had its origins back in 1963.

What Tim Berners-Lee did was to build on this and add some extra features that made it very easy to publish and share information over the Internet. He devised standards for coding pages, for naming pages, and for transmitting pages through the Internet. And he created the first browser. It was a masterly piece of work.

But if he hadn’t done all this himself, sooner or later someone else would have produced something very similar. We are very fortunate that it was invented by him and not by some employee of Murdoch.

I say that Tim Berners-Lee is a great liberal, not because he invented the Web, but because of his deep commitment, in the academic tradition, to open information on the Web. He laid down the principles under which the Web should operate. The standards that he developed were designed to support openness.
Moreover, he believed that an open Internet is essential to maintain democracy in an open society.

Last December, he published an essay in Scientific American to mark the 20th anniversary of his invention. It was entitled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”

He writes: “The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles.”

But he fears that the twin principles of universality and net neutrality are being threatened.

Universality means that you can put anything on the Web, any type of data, any content, any language, and you can access anything on the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee claims that universality is being undermined by a number of sites that do not use the Web’s open standards.
He cites social networking sites which capture your data but make them available only within their sites. “Each site is a silo” he says” walled off from the others. The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”

The other principle he writes about is net neutrality, which is fundamental to the survival of the Web.
Net neutrality is the idea that all Web traffic should be treated equally. It could be violated if, for example, an ISP made it easier for you to connect to some websites rather than others, or to download some materials more quickly than others.

He says: “A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.”

I’ll end with Tim Berners-Lee’s own words:

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

That's a liberal talking.


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