Interview: Sir Tim Berners-Lee

“WHO is this Berners-Lee, that you are so excited about?” my father queried. He had been quite surprised to have me talk incessantly about Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his achievements all time (especially, as the date of my interaction with him came nearer and nearer). I explained to Pa the wonders of the Web, the magic of the Internet, and how the ‘father of the Web’ was responsible for it in so many ways. Somehow, I couldn’t impress my Pa much, so, I told him a small fact a wee bit exaggerated, that had Sir Tim patented the WWW invention, he could have been many more times richer than Bill Gates. Bringing Gates into the topic was what one calls; coup de grace, as suddenly Pa too developed respect for Sir Tim, after all who wouldn’t want to be as rich, if not many times more richer, than Gates.

Yet, so often, Sir Tim has debunked the thought. He argues that had he patented his invention, it wouldn’t have spread the way it has. Still, his supposedly altruistic action has added sheen to his persona and earned him respect and adulation from all quarters. For me, personally, speaking to him was a high point of my professional life. For years, I have read and heard about Sir Tim, and when I finally got to talk to him, it was just amazing.

In an hour or so, we discussed the evolution of the web and also the future of it. Sir Tim also seemed very inquisitive about the way India was adopting the Web and asked me time and again on how things were on the ground. For instance, he is very keen that there is more content in local languages on the Web, as it represents the diversity of the Web. “Diversity is important for the planet. We need to have diversity of cultures, of languages, of points of views, of ways of looking at problems and solving them. Without that the human race will not have its incredible richness,” he says.

This interview was published in the Dataquest magazine in an abridged form, after all, it is hard to print ten pages of content. Yet, everything that Sir Tim said in his soft and learned voice is of immense value, as he has become the ombudsman of the Web, a caretaker, a guardian. Hence, I publish here, the complete transcript of the interaction we had. I do hope, sometime in the near future, I get to interact with him again, there is just so much to ask to him.

Even my Pa has a query for him now, “Why did you not become (as rich) like Bill Gates?” Forgive my old man and thank heavens that Sir Tim is not.


‘I think the opening up of the free flow of information (on the Internet) is inevitable’

“Quite an ordinary person,” is a term that Sir Tim Berners-Lee uses for self. Nonetheless, the world that refers him as the “father of the Web” chooses to disagree. It was in the early nineties, while working at CERN; Sir Tim proposed a project based on the concept of hypertext, to facilitate sharing and updating information among researchers. The project is now known as the World Wide Web (WWW), or simply as the Web. Sir Tim did not patent his invention and made it available freely so that it could be adopted and spreads rapidly. It has indeed, according to Internet World Stats there are an estimated 1.2 billion Internet users spread across the different continents. And the usage is growing at an astounding 244.7%, especially in Asia and countries like India and China.

Currently, Sir Tim is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C, an international standards organization that oversees the evolution of the web. The ‘father of the Web’ has now taken on the role of caretaker and is often talking about different issues that hinder or are beneficial, for instance semantic Web, net neutrality or introduction of domains like .mobi or .xxx. He is also very excited about the prospects of mobile web and hopes that countries like India that have a huge population of mobile users could benefit from it. Sitting at the W3C HQ at MIT, Massachusetts, Sir Tim is very interested on how the Web is playing out in India and is there an explosion of Indian local languages on the Web.

In an extensive interaction with Dataquest, Sir Tim talks talks about different issues be it India’s limited role on a global scale or how could what he thinks of Web 3.0. Excerpts.

Let’s start the discussion with India; with 3.6% of Web users — some 40 million – India is the 4th largest in terms of sheer numbers. Yet, the nation and its people have so little say on how the Web is run, moderated or evolves. What do you make of that?
When you say that India has little to say how the Web is run, moderated or evolves, there are numerous aspects to it. First thing is content. On that front, Web is a very open space where anybody can publish what they want. Basically, it all comes down to having enterprise and creativity of individuals to put up a Website or a blog and of course there is an increasing number of Indian Websites with local and global content. One of the most important feature about the Web is its diversity, not just about languages and culture but also in terms of social things, the fact that you don’t have to put up really professional things, you could just put up amateur things, just about anything. The bar has been set pretty low, so as to say. So if people things that some subject or certain languages are under-represented on the Web, I would encourage them to fix that.

Second level is the standards. Traditionally hypermedia has been the crux of the Web, namely interlinked text documents with pictures, but now we are also seeing a lot of audio and video on the Web. Another interesting area is the publication of data on the Web, data about all kinds of people, about the way they are connected, about products, about weather, and so on. Things keep evolving over the Internet and standards are a process of this evolution.

Personally, I want to have participation in the standard setting process from every part of the globe and I would encourage people in India to involve in the process. There is a W3C office in India which we set up to for helpdesk, to help small local groups, it can be approached for guidance. Standard setting process is basically an international activity, so any W3C working group that has an inclination or an idea can be involved. So one possibility in which people in India can choose and direct the further evolution of the Web is by getting involved in the standard setting process.

Finally, there comes the infrastructure. There is little governance of the underlying infrastructure like domain names, etc. But that is relatively small part of the social governance. What really drives or rather regulates the Web is more of social laws of the land, laws regarding copyright and libel and contracts and these differ from nation to nation. India has always been a part of the Web, I expect it to play a bigger role in the coming years.

How do you feel about the fact that millions of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or even in rural parts of India and China are completely oblivious and touched by the wonders of the Web or the Internet?
I have often pondered upon this, and feel that a lot many things are inter-linked here. First and foremost, Web is not the be all and end all of everything and I do not think that it should be forced on anybody. Many countries in Africa or Latin America already have a long list of things including clean water, healthcare, peace, etc. that are a priority. And history tells us, that many of these social development things have been achieved in the past without the Internet.

So we have to make sure that, while we are very excited (have heard very positive stories about Internet connectivity helping the population in developing countries), it is important, that we do not get distracted by it. The rush for fiber optics should not come at the cost of clean water and healthcare.

Yet, I do feel it is the duty of the developed countries to help the developing countries in as many ways. There is an ethical duty that any developed nation must help a developing country.

There is also this view that the Web is basically a tool for the educated and the elite, what is your take?
Well, to be honest, if one looks randomly, there indeed seems to be a bias on the Web. The bias comes from two ends, one is the language, there is disproportionate amount of content in English and secondly, the type of content, a large amount of this content is rather technical in nature. So you can easily find content on technical topics using the search engines. For instance, if a same term is used to describe something technical, or musical or historical, you would be more likely to find the technical paper. That is simply, because technical people are more apt to use the Internet and thus more apt to put things on the Web. Hence, there has been a skew that has existed from the beginning. The good part is, it is becoming less and less strong.

There are basically two things that inhibit a person in rural India in regards to using the Web. First, there is the physical level, namely the computer or an Internet connection. In that respect, Net is a tool that requires certain amount of technology available before it can be used. That would change as more and more people in rural areas get access to technology, as the prices of the terminals and computers come down or even with the introduction of smart phones with Web browsers. That is bound to change, so that we will have more and more people with access to the Web.

I have great hope on the mobile device and feel that mobile devices will bring the Web to very many more people. We at the W3C consortium have a Mobile Web initiative, which is designed to promote the use of Web on the mobile devices and also impress upon Website designers to keep in mind the small screen size of the mobile phone when they design a Website. Some are easy on the phone screens and some are not, so we are promoting the best practices in Web designing. This will not only help the person or the corporation to reach the executive on the handheld but also the person browsing the Web in rural India using a mobile device.

Now, let me come to the language barrier, namely accessibility in the given language, I feel strongly on the issue. The standards that we promote at the consortium have a very strong internationalization angle to them. We have an internationalize team which ensures that standards don’t have a bias to one particular culture. So most of the standards use XML, and XML uses Unicode. So we try to make Web work with different systems of writing and different characters used in languages. When the technology is completely internationalized and localized, still there will exist a big gulf in terms of provision of content in ones local language. That is something that really Indians have to do, i.e., creation and translation of content into Indian languages.

What I suspect that Web in local languages will explode in a similar sort of a way as in English. It may be that English becomes the common language for things that can only be in one language and then would come the local or the regional language. In the near future, possibly Chinese will become very common on the net due to the large number of people who speak that language. I feel people will end up learning two languages, one is an international language like English and the local language.

Personally, I hope that we don’t lose the diversity of the Web, diversity is important for the Web. In fact, diversity is important for the planet. We need to have diversity of cultures, of languages, of points of views, of ways of looking at problems and solving them. Without that the human race will not have its incredible richness.

You have often spoken very strongly about the universitality of the Web. But is it really universal in a manner of speaking, with numerous governments monitoring and block the flow of information like in China, Saudi Arabia and even to some extent in India?
That is an interesting thought. I grew up in the west, and I believe that openness and government are very important. I believe there are very small number of dangerous things that should be really banned. Certain things are just illegal, like, child pornography, communal incitement, criminal activity, etc.

But I also think that free speech is very important. I do also feel that anonymous free speech can sometimes be dangerous because it can be used to spread lies. I think the ability to blog and be frank is a great tool and medium but bloggers should bear certain responsibilities. I feel bloggers sometimes do not realize that they have major force, if they mean or misrepresent things and it can have a very negative effect. In the days to come general openness will increase inexorably because people understand what they are missing and will demand it.

However, I realize also that countries that are used to having very strong control on information flow, it is impossible to change instantly. So I think these changes will happen over time, at times there might be a few setbacks, but I think the opening up of the free flow of information is inevitable.

What do you think of the enterprises colluding with repressive regimes for commercial gains, like Yahoo that helped in the prosecution of a blogger or Google filtering the search results in China?
I am really not in the position to comment on individual cases as I do not know them well enough. It is very tricky decision. I know that the companies have stated that they were forced into areas of compromise. I think compromises can sometimes be very essential for progress and can at times be very disastrous. I am in no position to really weigh whether these compromises were fair enough, or wise or not, history will be the best judge.

You have been talking extensively about Semantic Web or Data Web. When do you think it will be a reality?
It is evolving at the moment. The data Web is in small stages, but it is a reality, for instance there is a Web of data about all kinds of things, like there is a Web of data about proteins, it is in very early stages. When it comes to publicly accessible data, there is an explosion of data Web in the life sciences community. When you look about data for proteins and genes, and cell biology and biological pathways, lots of companies are very excited. We have a healthcare and life sciences interest group at the Consortium, which is coordinating lot of interest out there.

Meanwhile, there are various data projects to create link data that is data with which you can browse unlike browsing that we do normally on the Web. With Link data, you can do things like produce tables and map and put them in spreadsheet. The possibilities are endless. So the data Web is in fact starting to catch up, people are understanding how to use it as a data integration system. Under this new term link data, it has only been around for year or so, there is growing rate of data that is actually on the Web that allows you to start exploring one piece of data and pulling other related data and process it together.

Do you think, developing countries that have relatively less Internet penetration can leapfrog to Web 3.0 or Semantic Web?
I believe that is always the case. A country that is developing tends to leapfrog over its developed peers in terms of technology, so for example, I would expect developing countries when they put data on the Web (especially the government) to use RDF or Resource Description Framework. RDF integrates a variety of applications using XML. This is a truly great way to disseminate data. For example if the Indian government has say census data, or rainfall data or even train timings. If they put the data on the Web using the semantic data standards, then anybody can write a Website which can use that train timings data and display them in their own language, as data is global and does not have a language. And that is one of the exciting things about semantic Web, when you put the data out there you are not putting the data in English or in Hindi, you are putting it up just as data. Essentially data is numbers, and these numbers can be displayed in different languages. So the train names, station names, etc can be converted into multiple languages without human intervention.

In the west, for example in England and in America, that governments are putting up data and other Websites are picking up data from these government Websites, reusing it and making their own Websites. So or is a Website that tracks the US government by taking the data from US government Websites. So anybody can use this data and generate Websites automatically in different localized languages. In these ways and more, I think the semantic Web is more accessible and more international, you could produce a Braille version, you could produce a speaking version, based on the same data. I am very excited about the prospects and possibilities presented by semantic Web.

Wanted your take on the different jargons that one comes across, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, I even came across something like Web 2.5?
(Laughs) These numbers just keep floating around. The term Web 2.0 was invented by Tim O Reilly, it started by being a name for a conference on evolving technology and the term caught on and people started using it generally to describe what seems to be happening now and what we think would be happening in the future. I tend to talk more about sets of standards, about specifics. What I really think in the future, the mobile Web will be a big thing in the next ten years or so. The difference being that Web on mobile devices is going to be much bigger.

In fact mobile devices accessing the Web will be much larger than fixed devices. In the future, data will be accessible in lots of different ways. Today, the term Web 2.0 is used for Websites where the users generate the content. So I think, when people use the term Web 2.0 it is more about user generated content. But these different Websites do not interconnect, in the future, I would not call it Web 3.0, users would want their data to be interconnected. If they upload the photographs to different Websites, then they want to be able to see the photographs using the same tools.

For that they will need semantic Web that interconnects all. It would be like, I have given you my data, now give it back to me, because I need to be able to reuse it. Now I need to make a scrapbook, now I need to look at whole year the photos I have uploaded to different communities. I want to look at all my content, some of my friends are in Orkut some are in life journal. Now what I want as a user if I have my friend circle in Life Journal for example, then I use other tools to explore who I know including people in Life Journal and other online communities. We will see the interconnecting of data from different sites and that is an important part of Semantic Web.

You have also been a staunch supporter of Net Neutrality. How do you perceive the threat and what needs to be done to safeguard it?
The threat is mainly an American phenomenon, I think Net Neutrality is treasured so much by the user community that I don’t think there is a serious chance that we will loose it. But that does not mean that the threat isn’t there. Lot of countries and even companies would like to be able to control the Internet, because it is always very valuable to control the flow of information.
And as we have seen, some governments can’t stand on their merits, they feel they have to limit the flow of information. Meanwhile, if companies can control what you see, they can control what you buy, and where you buy from. They could also control what political things you se as well. The fact that the platform is neutral is very important, the threat at the moment in the US.

Currently, my Internet connectivity is actually provided through my TV cable, you the company that use to sell me television feed now sells me Internet over the same cable. Suppose I go to a site like Google Video or Youtube, or I download a movie using iTunes. But suddenly I find that the Internet signals have been blocked and when I call my cable company and they say that “Sorry but we can’t let you watch videos from Websites, because we reckon that if you want to watch a movie it would be better if you chose it from our library and watch in on your TV. Since you have signed up for Internet access from us, you must buy up movies from our Website.” These companies could try and dictate what we see and how we see it.

Can you share an instance of such an event?
In fact if you look at the movie industry, and of course India has its own internationally famous movie industry, at the moment it is very complicated to be able to access movies. Of course there are different channels, there are cinema halls, DVDs, etc. but it is still very complicated. If for instance you are an Indian in London and want to access a whole selection of Bollywood movies, you possibly can’t because your local store might not have it. Movies over the Internet may actually open up the whole film industry to a much wider and diverse group of people making films. It may allow a lot of films to be made available in different languages and independently of place. So you could watch a film in your mother tongue from any part of the world. And of course there will be other things like more choice due to documentaries, and other independent films which don’t have a big following but some people are passionate about.

In most industries and as on the Web, you see what’s called the long tail, a few very heavily used sites and a large number of very likely used sites. This is the typical way of distribution. The long tail is necessary, as you homogeneity from a host of popular Websites, but also the diversity that is available from the long tail of diverse Websites. And this balance does not exist in the movie industry at the moment, so there maybe a bit of a shakeup and there maybe a huge reinvigoration for the movie industry when it happens.

Obviously the companies that deliver movies at the moment in the traditional way will have to learn to change. That’s does not mean that they will go away, they would learn to adapt as book stores learnt to adapt to the Internet and they didn’t go away neither do the books. So that is one example of a change that could be threatened by ISPs, if the providers are given control of what you see. But my worries are of macro kind, for instance if certain political party pays an ISP for not giving access to a rivals Website, etc. There are all kind of ways which you can imagine. If you do not have rules, there are all kinds of way in which net neutrality can be damaged.

Does the shift from current Web technologies to future correspond your idea of “from interactive to intercreative”?
I think that’s an interesting shift at the moment. I coined that word intercreative a long time ago. In order to get people to work in the direction of building things together and solving problems together. So it is about group being more smarter than the individual. The original Web browser which I wrote, was also one in which you could edit, make links and save the links very easily. My original vision was that everybody would be an editor, everybody would be a part of space where they can write. You could make links from one page to another by pressing the correct control links.

The fact that blogs and wikis have taken off, confirms by belief that people really need to be creative rather than reap up other people’s things. I think both blogs and wikis demonstrate how you can have a very positive creativity emanating from a lot of people. I think blog is one particular genre, it allows one person to publish and sometimes other people to comment and it works by people making links with each other. As these blogs link to each other, if people are interested in a particular topic, they can find out what other people are thinking by using these links.

The blog is very particularly interestingly constrained form of this genre. Then the wikis is another genre where whole lot of people will get together and everybody would try and hone a project, like an encyclopedia, or common information about what they should do on a vacation. And we would see very many different genres appearing in the future.

One of the things we haven’t seen on the Web really is workflow, where you can very easily set up systems, where for instance we are working on a broad set of activities, I am working on one set and you are working on other, we can setup Web systems that can make that very easy. We have easy tools that help us in collaboration. We do have things like issue tracker on the Web, which is very useful in terms of projects help keep tracks of different.

A very important area of intercreativity is how we make communal decisions, I suppose it is self government. That involves the lost art of argumentation, how do we make arguments. So I would love to see, tools on the Web which support reasonable argument, allow people to put up a thought in the spirit that it is there to be challenged and allow people to build pieces, allow challenges to quote sources. I can imagine a Website where you would have people debating and quoting facts and statistics that can be tracked by anybody through the links.

I am living in America at the moment, we ourselves use the Web extensively in our work. The working groups makes standards and have people or groups contributing in from all over the world. Web is used to build a consensus. To that end, the art of building consensus and using Web as a tool to that I hope to see much more powerfully done in the future

You have spoken against the addition of new tier of domain names like .mobi, .xxx, etc. Why is that?
We have spoken about the mobile Web and how different people would be accessing the Web at different times and on different devices, a very great diversity. You have a screen with 3 million pixels one moment and would have a 3 inch screen the next moment.

But is important that if I refer to something like train timetable for example and if I bookmark it using my phone, I can view it on my computer screen. Hence, it very important that the same URI works on different devices. The problem with .mobi, I didn’t want to have a domain that limited accessibility from certain devices, small devices in this regard. Then this would mean that, there would be a different URI for the computer and mobile devices. I fail to understand the need for it. The important thing is that the same URI should work, I don’t want to keep track of two URI for same thing, and I do not want to keep two bookmarks of same thing, depending on whether I am using my computer or my mobile device. It is very pragmatical engineering reason.

The engineering of the Web depends on you have a general one URI for something and wherever you use it, it works, irrespective of the software or the hardware you are using. That is part of the universitality of the Web. I think the consortium behind .mobi have the best intention because they are trying to — and we are working closely with them — see a lot of content available from mobile devices. But architecturally I feel that .mobi is a gimmick, the same URI should work very well on different devices.

But again from a developing country’s perspective, not many domain names are available, as people have already booked the .com domain. Do you not think it is an uneven proposition?
That’s a sad reality. You will not find short ones available, but you will certainly find the longer ones. Also, there are the local domain names. I know for instance a lot of people in the UK do not use .com very much but rather and then there is a whole Indian domain (.in) which is available to for India to manage.

And I would recommend, like in UK, .org is only used by non-profit. I think that is a very respectable domain name like is a very respectable domain name in the UK. That gives you an access to a lot of words. I also think that people are going in for quite long words, long names for domain names and as public gets more and more used to it, you would see the number increase hugely and people making up new names or words.

What do you make of the tussle between ICANN and other nations over the ownership of domain names?
The roots of the domain named should not be owned, it is a public domain resource and it should be managed very carefully for the people of the world. There is a lot of management that has to be done for the domain names and it has to be done carefully. As you know I am not in favor of creating just top level domain left, right and center. I think the Internet can happily survive for the next ten years without the need of a new top level domain. I think most of the time people are doing this not because they think it will help the society but because they can own a whole lot of Internet real estate. For instance I don’t think that the .info domain has really helped as very much, people still feel they should get a .com and it only adds to the confusion if different companies have the .com, .biz and so on. And there isn’t very clear definition what each domain is for.

I think that the top level domains, it is very important, are run fairly internationally with a fair representation of businesses and consumers worldwide, not just the companies that run the Internet. I think that whenever you have something that represents the whole world, like the United Nations, it becomes bureaucratic and it becomes slow, because it takes a long time to take into account everybody’s point of view. So we should be prepared to put up with some bureaucracy.

We don’t need a domain name system in which you could very very quickly get a new domain name. Domain names are not the most critical part for the functioning of the Web. The Web depends on the development of standards, I think we should put our energy into creating new standards, bringing new technologies, like open standards for video, encoding, open standards for data communication, putting scientific and clinical data out there on the Web, to spread that sort of information between countries. I think that sort of thing is very important, that’s where our energy should be spent.

You have also warned about the dark side of the Internet or the Dark Net. It seems quite morbid, what is the threat level here?
I never spoke about the Dark Net, the article that BBC put up was just a case of very bad reporting. At times reporters seem to be more interested in bad things. What happened was that I had a long discussion with various reporters, and I think there was somebody from the Guardian asked if there was anything that I was worried for and I said yes, there are lot of things that one could worry about. And this was blown out of proportion and the report said that the inventor of the Web is very worried about the dark side of the Web. Whereas most of the conversation we had, like the one we are having now, was about very strong hopes for the future and tremendous excitement about very positive things.

For instance, when you asked specifically what concerns I have and I spoke about Net Neutrality, but then I am very optimistic about humanity and am sure we will have neutrality because a vast majority of users of the Web understand how important it is. And they would fight for it, as you said they have fought in India.

Which aspect of the current Web impresses you the most, say, like Wikipedia, Orkut or even Second Life?
I think that all of that is very interesting. I never had any favorite, I think Second Life kind of thing or virtual reality is very interesting because as the screens will get bigger and processors will get much more faster and smarter, these Websites would become even more compelling, Thus I think there could be lots of positive things that emerge out Websites like Second Life but in that area I think standardization and openness would be very important. So all the things that you mentioned like social networking, are generally very positive, there could many more things to come, it is just not over.

Shashwat DC

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