Do we know wwwhere it's going to? Berners-Lee thinks he does
In an exclusive interview, the ‘father of the web' gives his thoughts on his world-changing invention
It was an inauspicious start. When Tim Berners-Lee, then an awkward 34-year-old coder from East Sheen in southwest London, wrote a 20-page document outlining plans for a World Wide Web and handed it to his boss nearly 30 years ago, it was returned with three words pencilled roughly in the corner. “Vague but exciting,” they said.
Today, Sir Tim, who has a tendency to talk in excited bursts and skip over words, recalls how “nobody really did anything” at the time after he wrote his proposal in March 1989.
It wasn’t until 18 months later that his boss at Cern – a particle physics lab in Geneva – agreed he could work on his idea as a hobby, or sort of “play project” as he puts it. The rest, as they say, is history and Sir Tim has never looked back.
The soft-spoken computer scientist couldn’t have imagined that this side project would later pave the way for colossal companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
It would connect billions globally, spawn the creation of entire new industries and serve as a growing bank for humanity’s knowledge.
It would also, however, give rise to fake news, political manipulation and internet addiction on a terrifying scale.
“For me, I watched the web grow from something where people had very utopian dreams about it, to something where I had to point out to them that this is just a reflection of humanity,” says Sir Tim, now 63, with a quick shrug of resignation as we sit in a dressing room in London’s King’s Cross.
The animated software engineer, whose trademark staccato speech is sometimes difficult to follow, has just stepped off stage at the Open Data Institute, the organisation he founded to promote the use of open data.
In an exclusive interview, Sir Tim is eager to explain how the web – his own creation – encompasses the good, the bad and the ugly, just like humanity. In an intensifying battle between these different forces online, it is the latter two that have emerged as the clear winners in recent months.
When it comes to the bad, cyberhacks such as those on British Airways and Equifax have eroded people’s trust in online security and left millions exposed to fraud.
The growing use of smartphones caused a generation of children to become increasingly addicted, anxious and lonely.
Meanwhile, governments around the world stepped up efforts to monitor citizens through online tools that are often invasive and discriminatory.
Then, in March, things got ugly. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how far political campaigners were prepared to go to collect user data to manipulate behaviour.
Cambridge University academic Dr Aleksandr Kogan used a personality quiz to harvest the private details of up to 87 million Facebook users. That information was used to target advertising in a bid to sway the 2016 presidential election.
“I think what happened with Cambridge Analytica, it was the tipping point for people on the street,” says Sir Tim, in a voice that gives the distinct impression he’s annoyed the world didn’t see it coming earlier.
“Before, you wouldn’t have written about these things in The Telegraph, and now, you do – because people, they realise there are big systems and processes at work that they are contributing to by giving their data, and [those systems] are being used to manipulate them.”
This dark world of digital surveillance and fake news is a long way from the type of environment Sir Tim grew up in. Born in leafy Richmond, just a stone’s throw from a bucolic stretch of the River Thames, a young Berners-Lee showed a natural affinity for computers. By his own admission, he was hopeless at sports, instead preferring to spend his days trainspotting and tinkering with model railways. A love of machines was in his DNA.
Sir Tim’s parents had both helped create the first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, and encouraged their son to take an interest in electronics.
After attending Emanuel, a private school in Battersea, the web pioneer studied physics at Oxford. It was here where he met his first wife and built his own computer using an M6800 processor and scrap parts from an old television.
These were relatively innocent days for the man who would become known as one of the 20th century’s most important figures.
It wasn’t until he joined the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) after graduating that his life really began to change. His work led him to create the blueprint for the World Wide Web – a system designed to allow nuclear scientists to share data.
On April 30 1993 Sir Tim’s browser was placed in the public domain available for anyone to use for free, and it quickly took on a life of its own.
The “father of the web” tries to pinpoint the moment he realised that his creation, which he has never profited from, turned against him.
“I don’t think there was one particular place,” he says. “But I remember there was the Twitter bombing of the Martha Coakley election, where people demonstrated how that election had been largely manipulated. She was attacked using social media.”
He is referring to the 2010 Twitter bot attack on Martha Coakley, the attorney-general who was running for the US Senate. Within the space of 138 minutes, nine Twitter accounts spread misinformation designed to make users believe Coakley hated Catholics.
Today, the incident is regarded as the first known bot attack used to influence politics. Sir Tim is clearly frustrated with the lack of progress from social media companies. “I think when you look at all of the issues of fake news, I think we do need to move quickly because you never know when the next election is going to be.
“It’s important to try to make sure that the social networks and all the systems we have out there, are ones that have been engineered as much as possible, to produce constructive debate, and to produce systems where people can be held accountable for things that they say that aren’t true.”
But he is, at heart, an optimist, and claims Facebook has shown signs it’s changing its ways. That could be something to do with the fact that its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently signed up to Sir Tim’s “Magna Carta for the web” – a contract that requires tech companies to respect data privacy and “support the best in humanity”.
It remains to be seen, however, how far they uphold the deal. Sir Tim is, for now, giving Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt. “They are going down the road of recognising people should have control of their data, and that’s a really important step.”
Away from his work, Sir Tim has an interesting personal life, which he rarely speaks about.
He has been married three times and has two children with his second wife, Nancy Carlson, a former American figure skater.
After their divorce in 2011, he fell in love and married Rosemary Leith, the head director of his charity, the World Wide Web Foundation.
Sir Tim usually declines interviews so that he can devote as much time as possible to his family. But he’s now stepping back into the limelight to talk about initiates who could reinvent the web.
One that gets him visibly excited is a project called Solid that aims to enable apps to read data from servers controlled by the user rather than large corporations such as Google.
Solid has been years in the making, and Sir Tim says it could launch next year as a service, initially, for journalists. “They have said when they interview sensitive sources, they want to be able to have a chat session where it’s stored on a computer where they wish to be in control.”
Solid, for Sir Tim, represents the hopeful future of the internet.
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited