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CYPRUS: Inventor of the internet looking to build safer new web

11 May, 2019

Inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, the scientist whose work literally transformed the way we live, wants to make the internet a safer and more democratic place to surf.


Like many before them, it was the turn of European University Cyprus to award the self-acclaimed computer geek the title Honorary Doctor of the School of Sciences in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Berners-Lee was declared by Time Magazine as one of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’ by revolutionizing the world by changing the way we communicate and consume information, as EUC Rector Kostas Gouliamos noted in his welcome speech.

Praising the Briton, Gouliamos said that that the scientist “has not only founded the essential functionality of the internet but also created the DNA of innovative machine”.

He explained how the invention of the WWW has rapidly grown saying that while in 1995 just 1% of the population had an internet connection, now “every 10 seconds the web sends 25 mln emails, makes 500,000 searches and 1.2 mln videos are being viewed through the most popular platform”.

The pioneer computer scientist and inventor conceived and developed the Internet communication language, the http protocol (Ηypertext Τransfer Ρrotocol), as well as the Universal Resource Identifier (URI) which is how each page is identified with a specific address to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.

Berners-Lee, 63, came up with the idea while working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research known as CERN, as scientists needed a way to keep track of work that other colleagues were doing on huge projects.

So, Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the web, which he at first named the Mesh, with which scientists working together on projects could read and edit documents online.

Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, then a fellow at the physics research laboratory CERN on the French-Swiss border, sent his boss a document labelled Information Management: A Proposal. The memo suggested a system with which physicists at the centre could share “general information about accelerators and experiments”.

With the help of his associates, Berners-Lee presented the first version of the World Wide Web in 1990, along with the first browser, as well as the first web server. Available to the public in 1991.

The scientist proposal would combine a nascent field of technology called hypertext that allowed for human-readable documents to be linked together, with a distributed architecture that would see those documents stored on multiple servers, controlled by different people, and interconnected.

Berners-Lee said “it didn’t really go anywhere. My boss, Mike Sendall, took the memo and jotted down a note on top: ‘Vague but exciting …’ but CERN allowed him to work on the project on the side.

Accessible to all

He was an advocate of making the invention accessible to the people.

“Today half of the population does not have access to the net, while the other half, who do have access, are faced with too many unacceptable risks to their health and security, and their democratic rights”.

While noting that he had projects which have failed, the WWW was tremendously successful.

“However, with a success of that scale has come a host of troubles, ones that could never have been predicted when building a system for sharing data about physics experiments.”

“It’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.

If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Berners-Lee is currently the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which he founded with the aim of bringing member organizations and its full-time staff together in the development of standards for the internet.

The distinguished scientist has been working on a number of dystopic functions of the internet from cyberbullying and crime to the increasing dominance of social media and the frequency of fake news.

Contract of the Web

Sir Berners-Lee has been campaigning for the protection of personal data and has conceptualized a Magna Carta, the formation of a contract of principles for the internet. He visualizes a new web where people will have complete control of their data.

In 2009 he set up the World Web Foundation, working for digital equality and produces rankings of world freedom around the world. In his speech at the EUC, he said the internet is not a network of computers but of people.

He talked about how the internet had offered hope for the creation of a new democratic state of things with the appearance of the blogosphere.

As he explained people such as cyberlibertarian and activist John Barlow and John Lennon felt that technology would be the way forward for humanity, building a democratic nationless society.

“Blogs are part of the mesh of people on the web, who were trying to build a good blog to get their ideas out there. They would link their blogs to other blogs presenting ideas they felt that readers should also take a look at. Which was wonderful. We felt like ‘we had finally arrived. What could go wrong?’” he said.

The addition of a counter on views and subsequently the introduction of advertisements on blogs changed things.

“At first nobody thought it to be wrong to be paid for hard work going into the blogs. However, advertising became more sophisticated and bloggers started being paid if a viewer clicks on the banner and actually buys something. So, bloggers started pushing people to buys stuff. Various books written said that advertising was the original sin of the internet,” said Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee’s solution is radical: a sort of re-foundation of the web, creating a fresh set of rules, both legal and technical, to unite the world behind a process that can avoid some of the missteps of the past 30 years.

Calling it the “contract for the web”, he first suggested it last November at the Web Summit in Lisbon.

“At pivotal moments,” he says, “generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diverse groups of people have been able to agree on essential principles.

Berners-Lee is also working on a project called SOLID (an acronym for Social Linked Data). The project aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.

“Users should have the freedom to choose where their data resides and who is allowed to access it. By decoupling content from the application, itself, users are now able to do so.

Imagine having the right to control your data. Social media giants will not get to run algorithms on it,” explained the scientist, adding that in principle this is what the GDPR is all about, but SOLID offers the technology to do this.

He argues that we need to go back to democracy, giving the way Wikipedia works as an example. He said that Wikipedia writers have a code and a democratic process to determine what the truth is.

“At the end of the day, we need to find a way to better run the world. Collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, then we can get the web we want”.