A glimpse into the future of the Internet

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, speaking at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday night with MIT Senior Research Scientist David Clark, said that participation in the information society must be regarded as a right, not a privilege.

The acknowledged prime mover behind the creation of the modern Web said that right is currently under attack, however.

“What I don’t want to see is [the people who run the Internet] starting to filter it for commercial reasons,” Berners-Lee said. He specifically cited ISP restrictions on streaming and downloading content as an example of the problem.

Nor is political censorship acceptable in Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web. “There are plenty of governments that filter the Internet, that block pieces out for political reasons, for stability reasons.”

What’s more, he added, it’s not a problem confined to what many might consider the usual suspects in such cases. The U.S., he said, blocks access to company websites that, it believes, violate its trademark or copyright laws.

“Yet we were shocked when the Egyptian government … disconnected Egypt from the rest of the world. But I think a lot of people, when they saw that happen, started to realize ‘Actually, we should think about who can disconnect us,'” Berners-Lee said.

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, he said, should be updated to clarify the status of the Web as an essential to which all people are entitled. At present, “it doesn’t really encompass all the things that you can do on the Internet.”

“But the simple thing it means is ‘nobody should be spying on what I do, and nobody should be filtering who I can connect to.’ And that should not be a large government, and it should not be a large corporation,” according to Berners-Lee.

David Clark, one of the first chief protocol architects of the Internet and a major computer science luminary himself, presented a different picture of the state of the Web.

“Sovereignty is asserting itself, and along with it comes laws and police work and criminal prosecution. We have regulation, and at the international level, we have a lot of disagreement about what the Internet should be,” said Clark.

The universality of the Internet suggested by Berners-Lee doesn’t reflect the realities of the modern Internet, with its heavy emphasis on localization, diverse uses and specialization.

As an example of the way the “universal” Internet is affected by sovereign laws, Clark cited the case of Yahoo being sued in France for making Nazi memorabilia available for sale on an e-commerce site — which is illegal in that country, despite being protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. (Yahoo eventually just stopped allowing the sale of Nazi-linked items.)

“I’m actually a little uncomfortable, in principle, [with the idea] that the action of a French court indirectly caused the removal of content in the United States,” Clark said.

In much of the world, of course, this represents the exception rather than the rule — major Internet-using nations tend to have at least some protection for free speech. However, the situation is different with a country like China.

While Clark was careful not to exempt the U.S. from criticism over online censorship — echoing Berners-Lee’s point about copyright crackdowns — he pointed to recent speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as evidence of the disapproval with which the West views China’s extensive policing of the Internet.

However, Clark said, the Chinese view American actions like state sponsorship of developers of anti-censorship tools with just as much suspicion and disapproval. The Chinese argument, he said, is broadly that the case is symmetrical — the countries have highly divergent views on what the Internet should look like.

“The question I want to ask is … Would [America and similar countries] be better off if we do not try to force the Internet to be the same everywhere? But instead, [what] if we allow some of the boundaries to be hardened, so that we can have the Internet that we want, at the cost of letting them have the Internet that they want?” he said.

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