Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee Warns on Privacy

Surfers on the Internet are at increasing risk from governments and corporations tracking the sites they visit to build up a picture of their activities, the founder of the World Wide Web said on Friday.

Tim Berners-Lee, whose proposal for an information management system at the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN 20 years ago led eventually to the World Wide Web, said tracking website visits in this way could build an incredibly detailed profile of who people are and their habits.

“That form of snooping I think is really important to avoid,” he told an anniversary celebration at CERN.

Technology now being developed will make it easier to decide who can see material one posts on the Web, and in what circumstances. For instance people may not want prospective employers to see an album of holiday photos, he said.

Berners-Lee, a British software engineer who is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said innovation on the World Wide Web was speeding up.

“The Web is not all done, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Berners-Lee said. “I am convinced that the new changes are going to rock the world even more.”

One big change that is coming is “linked data,” in which individual bits of data are machine-readable, not just the Web pages they appear on.

That would allow users to link readable data to similar data and manipulate it, for instance putting it in spreadsheets or plotting graphs. The sum of human knowledge would then grow exponentially in what Berners-Lee calls the Semantic Web.

Examples would be students accessing data from research institutes, or ordinary people getting hold of government data — paid for by taxes — to improve websites.

The system would allow investors to process the data contained in company press releases.

Multiple Data Use

People who put data on social networking sites such as Facebook, for instance tagging names on pictures, would also be able to use that data in other applications, for instance ordering a T-shirt on another website.

Berners-Lee said the future of the Web was on mobile phones, which already have more browsers than laptops do.

“In developing countries it’s going to be exciting because that is the only way that a lot of people will actually get to see the Internet at all,” he said.

When Berners-Lee wrote his proposal in March 1989, his boss at CERN, the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, scrawled “vague, but exciting” on the memo.

A year later, he tested the idea by justifying it as a test program for a new NeXT computer, whose software is the basis of the current OS X Macintosh operating system for computers made by Apple Inc.

In two months in 1990, Berners-Lee wrote the software that allowed users to share access to information over the Internet, coining the name World Wide Web.

The code was made freely available in 1991 and was rapidly picked up and developed by other enthusiasts. “It took off because people across the planet got involved, that’s the most exciting thing about that period,” he said.

Among his regrets was starting Web addresses with http:// as the two slashes were redundant, leading to billions of wasted keystrokes.

Another regret was the way web addresses were constructed. In retrospect it would have made more sense to start with the most general elements such as countries or organizations — for instance using ch/cern/info instead of info.cern.ch as at present, he said.

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