A staunch idealist, the British inventor of the World Wide Web is worth more than his weight in gold. Tim Berners-Lee has shunned opportunities in the private sector to captain an international consortium grouping the Web's who's who. His foremost goal: to keep on improving the Web for the common good.
How do you account for the Web's formidable growth in the last 10 years?
The Web initially spread because of existing Internet infrastructure set up during the 1970s. By the time I had the idea for the Web at the end of the 80s, computers in many universities and institutes in the United States and in Europe were already connected to each other by cables exchanging information. So you have to give credit to those pioneers who put together such a network before the Web's arrival.
The Web spread fast because it was decentralized and no one was controlling its growth. The fact that anybody can start a server or run a browser, without having to register with any central authority, is what allowed it to grow rapidly. There were enthusiasts all over the world who realized what the world could be with the Web and directed their efforts at developing it.
Also the Web's openness is a powerful attraction. Everyone can not only read what's on the Web but can also contribute to it. Everybody is in a sense equal. This sense of boundless opportunity also led to its remarkable growth.
Does the Web stand to benefit those traditionally on the margins of technological innovation?
It is obvious that the present imbalance in society is unhealthy for the whole world. But do not look to innovations alone for solving global issues. It is for people to make decisions on how to manage themselves and it requires a lot of effort on all sides to solve various problems. We've had many tools in the past and Internet can be another tool in addressing those challenges.
The basic idea of the Web is that it is an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way, by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The Web is more of a social creation than a technical one. It has not changed anything fundamentally in the way human beings think, read and communicate with each other. It has given people greater choice than ever before by simply providing information. Advantages of the Web range from enhanced collaboration between people in different countries to reading a newspaper sitting in a remote village.
Though the Web has given us many choices, we still don't know how to use those choices to our advantage. I hope the fact that each individual has more choice now will give us greater power to reformulate our society.
In your book Weaving the Web, you talk about the danger of the Web being controlled by a select group of companies or commercial deeds blocking its growth. What would the consequences be?
The danger is when large companies that sell computers and software effectively start to control what information you receive on the Internet. Companies which offer free computers or Web browsers could prevent a user from utilizing or accessing programmes of their commercial competitors. Even Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can have commercial deals with certain Web sites, making them easier to access than other sites. This is already starting to happen.
On the one hand, people feel it's reasonable for a company to influence your Internet access if they provide you with free computers and software programmes. But on the other, it's really important that the right of the individual to access unbiased information be upheld. The point is that one should not masquerade the other.
I'm not sure to what extent people realize or can measure whether their attempts to access different websites are being affected by commercial concerns. It's also very difficult to find a balance between the right of a company to offer a service which is subsidized and the right of somebody to have unbiased access. …