As Web turns 25, founder calls for Internet Bill of Rights

An online Magna Carta? That's what the World Wide Web inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, hopes to create as his creation turns 25.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (left) speaks with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee in London June 25. Berners-Lee is calling for an "Internet Users Bill of Rights" on the World Wide Web's 25th birthday.

At age 25, the World Wide Web is far past baby steps and a moody adolescent stage. And its founder says, it's time for this Millennial to grow up.

Tim Berners-Lee, the Brit who invented the Web a quarter-century ago, spoke to the BBC, the Guardian, and others this week, calling for an “Internet Users Bill of Rights” to reform the privacy laws, increased censorship, and accessibility issues around the World Wide Web.

The Internet may have run far from Mr. Berners-Lee's initial document-sharing proposal, dubbed “interesting, but vague” by his superiors at CERN. But the founder still has considerable hold over the development of the Web, and is making moves to keep the Internet the way he originally envisioned: free.

"Now, 25 years on, Web users are realizing they need human rights on the Web,” he says to CNN. “We need independence of the Web for democracy, we need independence of the Web to be able to support the press, we need independence of the Web in general. It's becoming very important to sort out all that."

Berners-Lee is putting down the groundwork for this vision with the recently launched “Web We Want” initiative. The initiative seeks to create an Internet Bill of Rights that advances the following principles:

  • Affordable access to a universally available communications platform
  • The protection of personal user information and the right to communicate in private
  • Freedom of expression online and offline 
  • Diverse, decentralized, and open infrastructure
  • Neutral networks that don’t discriminate against content or users

Berners-Lee stands at the helm of the initiative and another one of his organizations, The World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF), is a major backer. This is key, as WWWF holds governments accountable for ethical practice and Web accessibility. Berners-Lee also established the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3), which determines standards for Web infrastructure. Combined, these two bodies govern major parts of Web development.

Though he is pushing for an overall governing set of principles, he admits some concern for regional issues. In the UK, for example, he says the focus is too strongly on those with copyright interests and less on how the Web can be used to further democracy.

"I wouldn't say people in the UK are apathetic – I would say that they have greater trust in their government than other countries. They have the attitude that we voted for them, so let them get on and do it," he says to the Guardian. "But we need our lawyers and our politicians to understand programming, to understand what can be done with a computer," he adds. "We also need to revisit a lot of legal structure, copyright law – the laws that put people in jail which have been largely set up to protect the movie producers... None of this has been set up to preserve the day to day discourse between individuals and the day to day democracy that we need to run the country.”

However, he spoke out strongly against a country-specific model, warning the balkanization of the Web could lead to more censorship and policing.

He also says the Web should do away with the United States’ control of Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which oversees IP address allocation.

Berners-Lee is a long-standing supporter of whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden, and is staunchly opposed to surveillance. 

"The people of the world have to be constantly aware, constantly looking out for [surveillance] – constantly making sure through action, protest, that it doesn't happen,” he told the BBC.

While Berners-Lee continues to fight for a freer Web, the Internet continues to expand at rapid-fire pace. What does he think the next 25 years have in store for the Web? Smarter tools, more data, and personalized experience.

And despite his calls for reform, he seems confident that the Internet will bring good to the future.

"In general, the Web enables humanity to be more powerful and that power can be used for good things and to do horrible things -- but on balance when it comes to humanity, I'm a tremendous optimist,” he says to CNN.

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