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World Wide Web father Sir Tim Berners Lee talks censorship, Steve Jobs and the future - part one

The Drum’s US editor Noel Young catches up with Digital Hall of Fame inductee and founding father of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In part one of this two-part interview, he predicts the future of the web and discusses the openness, or lack of, experienced in some parts of the world.

High in his office in the iconic Stata Center, at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, British-born inventor of the world wide web, reflects on a different sort of problem this week: one I had brought to his desk.

Sir Tim recently appeared at the Olympics opening ceremony in London, working on an original Steve Jobs NeXT computer and tweeting to the world “This is for everyone”.

He has also launched the latest initiative of the organisation he heads – The World Wide Web Foundation. Its new web index measures the economic, social and political impact of the internet, ranking 61 countries on criteria ranging from the proportion of people online to the amount of useful content available (Sweden got top rating, ahead of Britain and the USA).

He explains to me how to attach pictures to stories sent from my new iPad, a task which I had found beyond me. If you want help, I always say, go right to the top.

Sir Tim agreed to this interview with The Drum to mark his induction into the Digital Hall of Fame at ad:tech London this week. The Digital Hall of Fame, organised by The Drum and the British

Interactive Media Association (BIMA), celebrates those who have made the biggest impact on the UK’s digital landscape. Sir Tim is in good company, with the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Stephen Fry, and Apple’s Sir Jony Ive just three of the 20 British-born notables on the list of inductees.

Justin Cooke, chairman of BIMA, spelled out Sir Tim’s achievement, highlighting his role as not only an inventor but as a visionary.

“On 25 December 1990, by implementing the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the internet, Berners-Lee invented the world wide web.

“By giving it away he changed the world for the better, forever. There are few greater humanitarians alive today or perhaps have ever existed than the Web Father.”

Sir Tim’s reaction to the honour is very typical of the 57-year-old Londoner. Acknowledging that he had in fact received more than a few accolades in his time, he says: “I think every time you have to remember that basically I am accepting on behalf of all the people who are involved with the web. It has been just a tremendous collaborative thing. Early on, nobody’s manager told them to do it. They just all thought it was a good idea.”

Wherever he goes, Sir Tim is beset with questions. He has even put a number of FAQs on his website to stem the flood. The other week he was asked if there was a switch to shut off the internet (no is the short answer). Undeterred, The Drum asked Sir Tim if we could ask a few more questions and he agreed.

What is the next big thing on the web?

Undoubtedly mobile, says Sir Tim. With more and more people accessing the web by mobile rather than desktops, “the web going mobile will bring the people using the web from 25 per cent to 80 per cent,” says Sir Tim. Cost was one of the issues delaying the explosion. “For many, the cost of a mobile phone is a big part of their income.”

More data becoming available will be a major driver for the mobile revolution. “For example when you look at a map, in some places you can ask how to get there by car or by public transportation, but that relies on all the public transport schedules being available. There are all kinds of things that should become possible when the data is available.”

Will openness win over censorship?

China has quite a strong web index, because it has a lot of people “communicating, buying and selling things” online, explains Sir Tim. “It has quite an impact on people’s lives.”

“Obviously when you say ‘China and the internet’, a lot of people in the West think of censorship.

“The web index at the moment doesn’t have a lot of numbers in it about openness and censorship. We hope that when we produce the next version of it in a year’s time there will be more data available.

“Openness is a big issue in the sense that you will be able to use the web without being spied on by people trying to sell you things or somehow put you in jail.”

With the web indexes, released by The Web Foundation just a few days ago, you can look up where countries are in advancing the web, said Sir Tim.

What sort of devices will we see in the future?

Another big theme for Sir Tim is the diversity of devices. “It has always been a mantra of mine, that when you make a website you should make no assumptions of what sort of devices people will be using.

“I think people in the developing world will start with phones then may want to move to cheap tablet PCs. The price of devices is generally falling.”

Then there are new things, things like very high resolution pictures you can put into your spectacles.

“At the moment you can get low resolution versions but those aren’t very useful. Imagine if those become light and powerful, saving you from carrying around big tablets.”

Another thought from Sir Tim: “Because the cost of screens is slowly falling, we will have rooms completely covered in pixels, like something from science fiction.”

What will be the lasting legacy of the web?

Sir Tim says, “Hopefully it will make the human race work more efficiently in many, many ways: we’ve already seen acceleration of commerce, and the acceleration of learning.

“The big question is can we use it to accelerate peace? One of the worrying things when people go online is that they tend to interact with their own kind: race, colour, creed, sexual preference and so on.

“People tend to to stick to their own on the web. So the big thing is to get people to connect across cultural borders.

“If you’ve just been in conversation with somebody, or somebody’s parents about some common interest – whether it’s bird watching or global warming – you are less likely to shoot them.”

Sir Tim wants to see empathy developed across cultural borders.

“People tend to demonise the other side.The Christmas armistice in the first world war was an example of how people can come together.”

The BIMA Hall of Fame inductees, all 20 of them, will be announced at ad:tech on Wednesday.

The interview will conclude with the second part tomorrow, in which Sir Tim offers his big digital prediction, discusses the role that the late, great Steve Jobs played in developing the web, and whether there is a future for the ailing newspaper industry.

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