This past week, I spoke at IPExpo Europe in London, and I was honored to have Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web as a fellow speaker. He reflected on the 25 years that have passed since he helped create the Internet. He raised a number of interesting topics during the course of his presentation.
First, he indicated that he does not regret baking greater security into the initial version of the web saying, “It might not have taken off if it had been too difficult.” Like the Internet entrepreneurs who would leverage the platform he helped create, he was concerned that the web have an audience first before evaluating changes that would be necessary.
He did go on to say that it is essential that the Internet allow for greater user privacy. “The idea that privacy is dead is hopelessly sad,” Berners-Lee said. “We have to build systems that allow for privacy…People have the right to see how their data is being used.” As examples, he indicated that individuals’ personal medical data should be accessible to doctors and first responders, but not to insurance companies who might use the data to reject potential customers or raise their rates. He went on to say, “We should build a world where I have control of my data and sell it to you. Users should have control, access to and ownership of their data.”
He hoped that this mechanism of providing access to one’s personal data would yield what he refers to as “rich data” rather than “big data.” The former would be of value to user and to others granted to use it, whereas the latter is a term he loathes. “When you read big data pieces in a magazine, it’s about how big companies are spying on you. A lot of the marvel of big data is a threat to me…What are these people going to do with that data? They’re going to target you with an ad which makes you feel a bit queasy. Targeted adverts are not the future.”
By way of example, Berners-Lee offers “That data that [companies] have about you isn’t valuable to them as it is to you. I have almost a year’s worth of data from [Facebook-owned location-tracking app] Moves. I can see how my exercise has gone up and down. In general…if you put together all that data, from my wearable, my house, from other companies like the credit card company and the banks, from all the social networks, I can give my computer a good view of my life, and I can use that. That information is more valuable to me than it is to the cloud.”
Since 2001, Berners-Lee has focused his attention on W3C, an organization he founded to oversee the development of the web. He has dedicated much time of late on the concept of the “semantic web”, designed to allow users to easily find, share, and combine information.
Berners-Lee indicated that continued progress in this direction relies heavily on the continued net neutrality that has seen a number of threats of late. Net neutrality is a state in which everyone has equal access to online content. “[Progress] is all predicated on a neutral network,” said Mr. Berners-Lee. “Net neutrality is really, really important. Never before have you had something in the system that could throttle your app.”
On one side of the debate on net neutrality are the cable providers and cellphone carriers, who demand that they be able to charge companies that use an inordinate amount of bandwidth more. Companies that offer streaming content like Netflix and Amazon would be included in this category. On the other hand, companies like Google have banded with a number of consumer advocacy groups, noting that a two-tiered Internet would work against the principle of open access for all. Berners-Lee firmly aligns himself to the latter category.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. Peter will provide a free video or teleconference lecture on the book for any team that purchases 40 or more copies of it. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on @WorldClassIT.