Tim Berners-Lee: Three Principles Of The Web – Universality, Decentralisation And Separation


The computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web at CERN.

Twenty years after coming up with the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee has written an essay entitled “Long Live the Web” which can be found here at Scientific American. It is a terrific testament to the power of the individual idea that a concept that existed on one web site and one browser now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. If you don’t believe that then try unplugging from the grid for any meaningful length of time.

However, despite amazing progress he is clearly worried that the core attribute of the Web – openness – is coming under increasing attack. The Web is too big to ever be fully controlled, but walled gardens, the abandoning of net neutrality, and the increased level of snoopiness from government and market information gatherers all serve to delay the very real benefits that an open Web promises to deliver.

He names three principles in the essay that determines the Web’s “usefulness and growth”, which he discusses in great detail:

  • Universality: “When you make a link, you can link to anything. That means people must be able to put anything on the Web, no matter what computer they have, software they use or human language they speak and regardless of whether they have a wired or wirless Internet connection.”
  • Decentralisation: “You do not have to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link.”
  • Separation: “This separation is fundamental. The Web is an application that runs on the Internet, which is an electronic network that transmits packets of information among millions of computers according to a few open protocols.”

By maintaining these principles he argues that we get to make the best link of all – to the future.

The question of course is how do we value and uphold principles in a world where power and territory is what really matters? In one part of the essay, Tim Berners-Lee describes how a company in 2008 was able to read information in information packets. This is not technology that is going to be unlearned. There is only one way of being open, but there seems to be a gazillion ways to pry, spy and build walls and then pry, spy and build walls again.

In a recent Guardian article on the importance of information for journalists. it was very evident that the biggest issue was not the availability of data. It was the lack of journalists trained in accessing and interpreting this information.

Tim Berners-Lee makes it clear, “Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

“But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

We cannot be passive in the face of the threats outlined by Tim Berners-Lee in his article. They are real.

  • Facebook, and sites like it, want your data to share, but don’t want to let you share your own data.
  • Companies want to track your every move to sell you more things.
  • Governments simply want to control you.

Lack of basic technical know, which can be fairly easily acquired, may not be a good enough excuse for citizens to turn away and say, “It’s someone else’s problem. Leave it for the nerds to sort out.”

The only possible way to preserve what we have and allow the space for future generations to build a better world is to take individual responsibility for what we can contribute to the Web, increase our knowledge and ensure openness and transparency wherever we can.

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