• World Wide Webmaster



    The shy giant of the world wide web, Sir TIM BERNERS-LEE, has been judged "one of the greatest 100 minds of our time". Campaigning against threats to shackle his invention, the man himself is sure the best is yet to come. Chris Baur examines the career of the man who changed all our lives  

    There’s an irresistible symmetry about the fact that, if they had Googled Sir Tim, they’d have been using the world wide web to discover all they ever needed to know about this man who invented it. 


    Sir Tim’s lack of celebrity doesn’t worry him in the least, he tells the BBC. “I felt, when I was out there pressing the buttons, I was doing it for everybody.”

    What persuaded this instinctively private man to join that cast of 15,000 in this piece of highly public theatre, he confesses in the Financial Times, was the “very ‘web-like spirit of the occasion‘ … of people who were very internationally-minded, very public spirited and very excited about the outcome.”

    Knighted in 2004 for his pioneering work, Sir Tim holds the Founders Chair at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the web‘s continued development.

    Others, of course, are less fastidious in digging behind his shyness to state the plain facts. Recalling Sir Tim’s 1989 proposal to create the world wide web when he was working as a computer services engineer in Geneva, Time Magazine judges him "one of the greatest 100 minds of the century – he has forever changed the shape of modern life, altering the way people do business, entertain and inform themselves, build communities and exchange ideas.


    Sir Tim Berners-Lee

    “Unlike so many of the inventions that have moved the world, this one truly was the work of one man... the world wide web is Berners-Lee‘s alone. He designed it. He loosed it on the world. And he, more than anyone else, has fought to keep it open, non-proprietary and free.”


    That’s the first of two things that are immediately remarkable about Sir Tim’s work. It is his tenacious commitment to the founding principle insisted upon by himself and Robert Cailliau, his collaborator at CERN – where they both then worked – that the institution should seek no royalties for the invention. It’s what made his web a winner, and swamped the fee-charging University of Minnesota’s rival Gopher protocol.

    Partly, this is a matter of personal taste. “People have sometimes asked me whether I’m upset that I haven’t made a lot of money from the web,” he writes in his 1999 book Weaving the Web.

    “What does distress me is how important a question it seems to be to some. This happens mostly in America, not Europe. What’s maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that is measured in terms of money.”

    He thinks “most larger companies now see that, for the market to grow, web infrastructure must be royalty-free”. And that’s the second focus of his missionary zeal – the web’s operational freedom. “You can’t propose that something be a universal space,” he tells the Financial Times, “and at the same time keep control of it.” He’s determined to keep the web “open” against powerful commercial and political pressures to shackle it.

    One of his fears is of the web being “broken into fragmented islands” by closed commercial systems. “There’s always an incentive to create a monopoly,” he says, “but the monopoly then threatens the health of the market.” And too dominant monopolies lose their incentive to innovate. Another worry is the urge for political censorship – people ought to be able “to use the web without being spied on by people trying to sell you things or somehow put you in jail.”


    So, the pioneer is one of the leading voices in favour of “net neutrality”. He insists that internet service providers (ISPs) should supply “connectivity with no strings attached“, neither controlling nor monitoring customers‘ browsing activities without their expressed consent. “Threats to the internet, such as companies or governments that interfere with or snoop on internet traffic,” he argues, “compromise basic human network rights.“

    This is one motivation behind this autumn’s launch of the Web Index, the brainchild of the World Wide Web Foundation which Sir Tim founded three years ago. Using data from the past five years, the Index assesses the state of the web’s readiness and infrastructure; the use and availability of web content; and the web’s impact, including social media interactions and business use.

    It’s planned as an annual evaluation. The first Index gives Sweden top ranking of the 61 nations it examined, followed by the US and UK. It finds that almost a third of countries face moderate to severe government restrictions on web access, while about half show increasing threats to press freedom.

    “We hope it will help deepen and broaden our understanding of the impact of this most powerful tool on humanity,“ Sir Tim tells the BBC. “By shining a light on the barriers to the web for everyone, the Index is a powerful tool that will empower individuals, government and organisations to improve their societies.“

    Its success, he adds, “will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children – whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases; whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable information from propaganda or commercial chaff; whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy and promote accountable debate.”


    That commitment has also led him to agree to become co-director (with Southampton University’s Professor Nigel Shadbolt) of the UK’s Open Data Institute, opening its doors this autumn. Backed by initial five-year funding of £10m from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, the ODI is a public-private sector collaboration “to unlock enterprise and social value from the vast amount of Open Government Data now being made accessible”.



    The “next big thing”, he’s sure, is bound to be about soaring web access from mobiles rather than desktops. It will more than treble web usage, he predicts. The main inhibitor so far is the fact that, for those in the world’s poorest regions, the cost of a mobile phone is still such a large part of their total income.

    Beyond cost, the key to this next web revolution will be the scale and quality of accessible data. Looking at a web-map, he explains, you’ll want to know how to get there by car, say, or public transport. “But that relies on all the public transport schedules being available. All kinds of things should become possible when the data’s available.”

    That’s the thing about Tim Berners-Lee – the indelible impression he leaves of huge unfinished business. He admits as much: “The web as I envisaged it – we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.” This really is the stuff of dreams and it’s dreams, above all, that have driven this webmaster. “Anyone who has lost track of time when using a computer,” he muses, “knows the propensity to dream, the urge to make dreams come true – and the tendency to miss lunch.”

    CHRIS BAUR, Editorial Director, Editions Financial


11/1/2020 12:15:01 AM