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CNR: Alamanacco della Scienza


N. 1 - 18 gen 2012
ISSN 2037-4801

International info   a cura di Cecilia Migali


Tim Berners-Lee, the man who changed the world

Tim Berners-Lee changed the world, inventing in 1990 the World Wide Web. Time magazine named him among the 100 most influential people of the past century. At present he is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a Web standards organization founded to lead the Web to its full potential (W3C Italian office is directed by Oreste Signore of Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologie dell' Informazione "A. Faedo" of Cnr), and of the World Wide Web Foundation, launched in 2009 to coordinate efforts to further the potential of the Web to benefit humanity. On November 14th, 2011, Sir Berners-Lee partecipated at 'Happy Birthday Web', a celebration event held in Rome on the occasion of 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, where he gently gives us this interview.

Sir Berners-Lee, how important is it that the World Wide Web be available in all countries, even emerging ones, to help overcome the digital divide?

Every time we make the WWW smarter and cooler and more powerful, we increase the gap between those who have it and those who don't. Things we now take for granted about the way we educate ourselves, find jobs and do business, are not available to the 80% of the world who do not use the Web. In fact it turns out that, far from being a luxury for the rich use of the Web can be part of the process of development. Healthcare can be bootstrapped more cheaply using the Internet. Even a village with no piped clean water can earn money using the Internet, and hence get the necessary pipe. We are starting to think of access to the Web and participation in the information society as a human right, because it is such a powerful enabler for individuals, for education and the economy.

What is the role of Web Foundation?

The mission of the WWW Foundation (webfoundation.org) is broadly that the Web should serve humanity. The organization is young. We are getting to know organizations that do related work and with which we can build partnerships .There are of course many organizations whose aim is that people should have clean water, and many for vaccines, many for education. But there has not been an organization specifically for the Web. Remember when we say Web, we are not just talking about having an internet connection, we are talking about a web of information within which people read and write and participate, ideally in their mother tongue. The Web Foundationis about everyone having the possibility of participating in the information society should they wish.

You said: "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect". What remains to do to increase the accessibility of the World Wide Web?

With every new technology developed, there is the accompanying challenge to make it as powerful a tool as possible for people with disabilities. As the WWW technology is constantly being advanced, doing the work of keeping it accessible never ends. Sometimes, of course, new technology provides a capability to those with disabilities which they have never had. One interesting area for research is how to make very powerful tools for exploring and analyzing the growing web of Linked Data, and specifically developing different techniques based on different forms of interaction. Making the world of Web Applications accessible will of course also be an exciting challenge.

The World Wide Web was born in 1990 during your stay at Cern, a top high energy physics research environment. Do you think the fundamental research is also important for innovation in technology?

I think that fundamental research is important. In itself. Yes, many other benefits come from projects like those at Cern where people come together from many different countries to build a huge machine. We learn to work together and to understand each other, we exchange ideas and hopes and dreams. We build up engineering talent in new fields. And we get spin-offs like the WWW. But we should do fundamental research because we should always be trying to understand more about the universe. Despite the fact that we have no idea where our exploration will take us? No, because of the fact that we have no idea where our exploration will take us.

Ict and social networks had important roles in recent Northern Africa events. Don't you fear that this incredible and powerful demonstration of bottom-up democracy could lead to some governments wanting to curtail World Wide Web access?

When the ruling powers in Egypt disconnected the country from the rest of the world's Internet, many people, I think, thought for the first time about who has control over the net, and how they will use that control. Note that even in many countries one thinks of as being advanced and democratic governments are giving themselves power to spy on and block the Internet. I don't think, though, in the end, that the citizens of most countries will allow themselves to be spied on or blocked, and governments which try to do this will end up changing their policy or being replaced.

New technologies allow the collection, process and use of sensitive data, such as web access logs, social likes and query logs of the users, tracked ubiquitously and invisibly. Are the privacy concerns on the W3C agenda?

W3C has a lot of work happening around privacy - there have been many workshops of experts to discuss possible solutions - and right now there is work on a "Do Not Track" feature for http. This is a very important area to be resolved, and we must try to make the Web as consistent as possible across different jurisdictions, as often people are not even really aware of which country's culture and laws they are interacting with.

Could a monopoly in, say, search engines or social networking, represent a problem for the freedom of the World Wide Web?

Since the WWW began two decades ago, there have been frequent worries about companies becoming a monopoly, as this would reduce the competition, the inventiveness and innovation in the field. Yes, monopolies often can be a problem - although it is interesting that many past monopolies eventually were replaced by a shift in the market to new priorities.

Claudio Barchesi