Q&A: Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality and why he won't have Alexa in the house

  1. 'Rules about net neutrality were very valuable...we should try to preserve them'
  2. 'I've never had a favorite website'
  3. 'I'd like to use AI as a powerful agent'

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, while employed at the European scientific institute CERN, in Switzerland. Famously, he gave it away for free. 

Today he’s still associated with the home of the Large Hadron Collider.

He’s one of the major advocates for net neutrality – the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) treat all data on the internet as equal, rather than speeding up or slowing down certain traffic or blocking any content altogether. It’s a concept now being challenged in the United States which threatens to overturn the concept of free movement of data across the internet regardless of what it is or who owns it.

Berners-Lee is also involved in the World Wide Web Foundation, which works towards everyone having access to the web, and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), dedicated to ensuring standards that promote the long-term growth of the Web. (Of course, it’s important to differentiate the World Wide Web from the platform it sits on: the Internet.)

‘Rules about net neutrality – were very valuable in the U.S. and we should try to preserve them.’

In the interview he also tells us the news services he subscribes to and why he’s not a fan of always-on home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (CC O credit: Henry Thomas)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee (CC O credit: Henry Thomas)

We’ve edited his answers lightly for clarity. You can read the full transcript in Sources and References.

Q: Are there any internet-related laws in the United States or the UK that you think need to be scrapped?

A: My concern is in America maybe, having been in a leading position really on the internet for a long time that with (the loss of) net neutrality it will…not really be an open internet. I talked a good bit to start-ups in Washington a couple days ago, and they were concerned that if the net neutrality goes away they will…have to negotiate it [their service] and have it unblocked by each ISP (Internet Service Provider).  That will be impossible and very transient. Whereas if they had started their service in the UK or Europe…you just launch a new website. And you don’t have to worry about it being blocked by different ISPs. Their Obama-era regulations – rules about net neutrality – were very valuable in the U.S. and we should try to preserve them.

Read Charles Turner’s and community member Eric Fershtman’s pieces on net neutrality in relation to the Federal Communications Commission vote happening on December 14, 2017, deciding whether Obama era regulations to protect net neutrality will be repealed.

Q: The U.S. takes a more no-holds-barred approach to freedom of speech than the UK. What do you think the ‘rules’ of freedom of speech should be on the internet?

A: I think the right for people to be able to say anything, and the right…to protect people from bullying, for example, are some areas where there’s no simple answer. Some people will be extreme and say that we should have everything, all speech should be free. Some people will say there should be no free speech, nobody should be anonymous on the internet. Actually, I believe like most people, if you are whistle-blowing you should have the ability to use anonymity on the net to expose bad things that are happening…but we have to come to some compromise about exactly where the line is, and then we have to solve it with the legal system, so that if I think you stepped over the line and you don’t think you have, we can take it to some form of arbitration…we have to keep readjusting it every few years, because people’s fear about different sides of the extremes gets modified by events and so on.

‘They live off conspiracy theories…not consistent with reality.’

Q: How do you think “fake news” can be tackled?

A: I think the label “fake news” covers a really complicated, interesting space of many different dysfunctional mechanisms…I think the power of fake news is the ability of humanity to divide itself into different pools, where you have one group, which are scientific and … the other group, they live off conspiracy theories, they’ll believe anything they hear from an authority or science, and who will have a completely inconsistent view of the world but not consistent with reality. [They are] quite consistent with themselves and where they’re in an echo chamber…

[Berners-Lee said it was important to do more research on how Twitter and Facebook, as examples of social media, might drive the creation of those echo chambers.]: Maybe we shouldn’t really blame those people so much as the people who engineered the software they use, because the software they use is encouraging them. It’s built to feed them more of what they had before, and connect them to more people who like the same stuff. If the software has been deliberately built to make the echo chambers and thought bubbles, then the responsibility is with the people who built them…You as a journalist, I as a member of the web, should be holding these people and these web properties to account and say, “Oh, you need to do better. You need to reprogram these things so we get a less polarised world.”

Q: Which news sources do you read, and which ones do you recommend?

A: Well of course the point of view I’ve always had regarding this attitude is that I’ve never had a favourite website. So to a certain extent, I’ve never recommended things, but I suppose I could say, so in general, I tend to use a pretty big mixture of things. But I tend to look, for example, at a Twitter stream, and my Twitter streams. I follow all kinds of people and pull sources out of that. I also have people individually sending me things in different chat channels. So different things like the web foundation, the web consortium, and ODI (Open Data Institute) all will have things that they’re discussing, so I end up reading all types of those things … There are some things that I subscribe to: The Guardian and The Economist, both of which have good offline apps.

Q: I’ve read before that you said you wouldn’t get an Amazon Echo or Google Home device. Why?

A: Why? I suppose I’m not very keen on either, I don’t think I relish the idea of having pieces of my…conversation, recorded and sent off the house and used in arbitrary ways. In general, I think it is interesting to use AI (Artificial Intelligence). I’d like to use AI as a powerful agent, and the speaking conversational interface is one of the valuable ways. In a way if there were guarantees, or if it could be where there’s architecture where the AI sits in my house and I can unplug it, and I control it and it’s open choice, then it’s interesting, then I’m interested to have it.

“This is for everyone” a tweet from World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee at the 2012 Olympics REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Q: How can we make the internet accessible and affordable for those living in rural areas, where it’s not economically advantageous for internet providers to put in these services?

A: I suppose there are two interesting ways. One is subsidies in different countries, subsidies in different forms. I mean, in Britain for example, traditionally that was how we got telephones. You used to pay the same price to have your telephone installed in Wales [as in London]…so various forms of universal service fund common accord where everybody contributes a little bit on their phone bill and then that is used to finance getting a fiber over through the mountain passes and so on. It’s [also] interesting talking about it now – low orbit satellites. For example, I don’t know about whether the Loon Project* balloons will work out but… it’s worth it to take a creative look at this sort of thing.

Q: Do you think that in such rural locations where there is poor internet service, that the best way forward is either government or community internet service providers?

A: I think that a township has the right to do that. I know you think, “What or whoever would stop them?” Well, there are sometimes those who have been in the States pushing if they should actually make it illegal for a town to provide its own data or its own internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaking at a SWIFT/Sibos event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, in Toronto, Canada, on 17 October 2017. (CC 0)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaking at a SWIFT/Sibos event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, in Toronto, Canada, on 17 October 2017. (CC 0)

Q: What was using the internet like before the invention of the web?

A: The thing was originally you just had to log on remotely from one computer to another, and there was a file transfer protocol, where you could sort of log on to another computer…It was clunky, and you had to find your way around the remote file system.

Q: Many websites and apps provide us with free services on the condition we give our data to them. If we didn’t allow them to use our data, would this mean we’d have to start to pay for many of the free online services we currently use?

A: Well, that’s sort of a simplistic question…You could find a site with advertising, which uses accurate knowledge of what the user has done on your site, and starts to build an accurate profile that never shares it with another site…never shares it with an insurance company, or a potential employer…never has nasty unexpected consequences…One [solution] we have been talking about is where people pay for somewhere to store their data…Maybe it’s a personal Cloud…they get for free with something else. They get it with their internet connection, or they get it for free with their university membership, for example.

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        *Project Loon is a project being developed by Google with the mission of providing internet access to those in remote areas using high-altitude balloons.

        To read the full interview, check out the transcript.



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