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Berners-Lee Dreams Impossible Dream

Berners-Lee Dreams Impossible Dream

Tim Berners-Lee may be dead right about the problems afflicting the World Wide Web 25 years after he invented it, but the vehicle he's proposed to solve them -- an Internet bill of rights -- isn't likely to work, say skeptics. Berners-Lee isn't your run-of-the-mill visionary, however. His initiative, the Web We Want, calls for adoption of national regulations and an international convention.

By Erika Morphy
03/13/14 10:32 AM PT

Tim Berners-Lee, known as the "father of the Internet," has called for an online bill of rights.

Twenty-five years ago, Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the Internet as we know it today, making the case that it needed to move toward a decentralized, open architecture and away from the proprietary linear structure that was emerging at the time. The rest is tech history.

So it is no small matter that he is having second thoughts about the way his baby has grown up. Berners-Lee called for an online "Magna Carta," or bill of rights, in an interview with The Guardian.

The open neutral system he originally envisioned is under attack, Berners-Lee said, not from short-sighted programmers but from corporate influences and government encroachment. He has proposed a new initiative, called the "Web We Want," with the goal of creating a system that is free for anyone to participate. This system would be devoid of the need for security, and would not tolerate surveillance or privacy incursions. It would have an open infrastructure and be based on Net neutrality. It would facilitate content creation and participation in the free exchange of ideas.

Berners-Lee has proposed some steps to reach this online state of nirvana.

A Step-by-Step Plan to Remake the World Wide Web

Visitors to the Web We Want site are asked to add their names to a mailing list so they can be kept informed of the campaign's progress.

It will begin with national dialogs about the "Web that your country wants."

Next, an Internet Users Bill of Rights for particular countries or regions -- or for all -- will be drafted. "From national regulations to an international convention, we can work together to propose the best legislation to protect our rights," the site suggests.

An Uphill Climb

Although he agrees with Berners-Lee's analysis of the current situation, Ritch Blasi, SVP of mobile and wireless for Comunicano, lacks faith that he can accomplish his goals.

"The Internet has become a world unto itself," he said.

Businesses use it to gather data and make money, individuals flock to social networks to nurture personal relationships, and governments use it for a variety of purposes -- some helpful, some not.

Berners-Lee's message is noble, Blasi told TechNewsWorld, but "the reality of the situation is most likely that his call for a free Internet will never happen."

Industries and consumers are sharply divided about Net neutrality and unlikely to give up the battle, he pointed out.

Who would be responsible for policing these agreements? Blasi wondered -- "the same people who are doing the surveillance today? And what about Internet crime -- does it go unwatched and unchecked?"

Non-Starter With Governments

Still, considering that Berners-Lee did have the vision to foresee how the Internet should develop, might he be able to pull off his vision, or some close approximation to it?

Not likely, said Rich Hanley, associate professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University.

"Berners-Lee is a tragic figure in that he has witnessed the rise and fall of the Web as an open platform free from government interference and trickery, and is now seeking to recapture his original view," he told TechNewsWorld.

Berners-Lee has watched the Internet devolve from its original great promise as a democratizing force, Hanley said. It has reached a point when the very freedom it once cultivated has resulted in the erosion of the most basic right of all -- " the right to be left alone, as the great Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote."

The Web We Want "is a noble cause," Hanley acknowledged, "but one destined to be ignored by governments."


Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.


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