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Internet creator Tim Berners-Lee: Copyright Alert System is bad for democracy

British computer scientist and inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, addresses a press conference at the 20th International World Wide Web Conference in Hyderabad on March 31, 2011.

The man knighted by the Queen for inventing the World Wide Web wants his creation to be neutral. Tim Berners-Lee believes that Internet service companies shouldn't have a say over the nature of the data that flows through networks. This includes the brand new Copyright Alert System in which five American Internet companies are now patrolling for illegal, pirated content and issuing warnings to customers.

Marketplace Tech host David Brancaccio spoke with British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at the South by Southwest Interactive festival now going on in Austin, Texas.

On the role of Internet service providers:

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web should be a blank sheet of paper. The Internet service providers, their duty is to get me bits. Bits in, bits out. If the police want to come and arrest me for doing something illegal, then the police have to come. But it's not the job of an Internet service provider to be, in this case, not just the police, but then also the judge and the jury.

On why he prioritizes an open Internet:

Tim Berners-Lee: To start with, for business, you really use the Internet to produce an open market. And perhaps more dear to me for the future, is democracy. We need to be able to find ways of governing ourselves in peace. We need to be able to find ways of coming to agreements with people in other countries, in other cultures, about what we are going to do with our planet and how we are going to solve global warming. For that, we need a very strong democracy. Democracy involves people being informed, being able to communicate, being able to hold each other accountable. And all that absolutely depends on the neutral Internet.


Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee was among those who spoke at a tribute at South by Southwest to the work of Aaron Swartz, the activist who took his own life in January as he faced hacking charges that could have put him in jail for 50 years.

Swartz, who helped pioneer the online newsfeed technology called RSS, was accused of breaking into MIT's computer system to access the academic journals database J-STOR, which is designed for paying customers.

"I feel like our generation gets a lot of flack for the things we do, and here was somebody who was making a huge difference," said Flavia de la Fuente, an organizer with the Sierra Club who was in the audience at the Austin Convention Center. "There is inequality all over our system of justice, and he was an especially difficult one to take."

Friends and associates spoke about Swartz's contributions and what they regarded as a broken federal computer fraud and abuse law.

"The horrible irony is that less than a month before he died, J-STOR had agreed to open up its archives to, essentially, free usage," said Andrew Leonard, who covers tech for Salon and also attended the South by Southwest tribute. "J-STOR dropped the charges. It was MIT, which has prided itself over the years on its hacker ethic of being open, that wouldn't drop the charges."

MIT is still investigating its handling of the Swartz case and a report is pending. Major content producers are expected to oppose a renewed effort in the wake of Swartz's death to change computer fraud law. The proposed reform would, among other things, treat lesser hacking offenses as misdemeanors, not felonies.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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The internet and the World Wide Web are two somewhat different things. The web (in simple terms) is a standardized protocol that facilitates everyone being able to retrieve and present the available data in the same way. This was Sir Berners-Lee's area of contribution.

The internet on the other hand is the underlying set of hardware and software architectures and protocols that the web uses. And honestly, no one can be credited with inventing the whole thing; dozens of individuals, and public and private institutions were involved. And there was a fairly lengthy history of network predecessors (SNA, BITNET, ARPAnet, NSFNET, etc.), of which few where aware, before we got to what we use today.

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