Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

The inventor of the Web predicts 'a massive outcry' over online privacy

By Brian Fung

April 4, 2017 at 7:00 AM

(Southbank Center/Flickr)

More than two decades ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the thing you're using to read this story right now — the World Wide Web. Since then, the Web has evolved in ways few could have foreseen, giving rise to apps, the gig economy and smart appliances. As Berners-Lee prepares to accept the prized Turing Award on Tuesday — an honor recognizing the historic accomplishments of a computer scientist — he reflected with The Post on Congress's recent vote (and President Trump's signature on Monday night) to repeal the Federal Communications Commission's privacy rules for Internet providers. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What's your reaction to last week's vote? Is it consistent with your vision for the Web?

We do things on the Web that are very intimate, like look up cancers we're worried other people might have or that we're having. We have intimate conversations with people in a way that we would have only in the very close quarters of a security-locked room. Just by the things that we do on the Web — we betray completely the most intimate details of our lives and hopes and fears and weaknesses that can be exploited. Maybe the ISPs don't go in this direction; maybe they realize it would be inappropriate. If they do [go in that direction] I think there'll be a massive outcry.

Google and Facebook already collect and share our data for advertising purposes. Are Internet providers that different?

Absolutely those industries are completely different. The business of supplying bits is a really important business. It's like water; it's a lower part of the infrastructure on which everything else depends. The fact that [your provider] doesn't have an attitude about what you use it for is why it's been successful. It's why the Internet has taken over the world.

A social network is different — it's not got much to do with moving bits from place to place. You have a choice, and even if you're a member of one of these social networks, you don't have to do everything there.

What is going to happen to Internet users as a result of the legislation?

When President Trump signs [it], it's quite possible nothing happens at all. But let's imagine what would happen if people started to record and sell the clicks. The population would divide. Some people would protest and do their best to switch to another ISP, and some people would decide they wouldn't have the energy to do that. Some people would move to a huge market for different technical systems. People would start using Tor. They'd start going through proxies so that instead of your Internet traffic going straight to your house it goes to a VPN [virtual private network]. Normal people in America will basically go into defense cybersecurity lockdown against their ISPs. Everything will get encrypted. People who care about it will find ways to deprive their ISPs of data. . . . There'll be a great market for people who provide that technology.

How do you shield your privacy? Do you use a VPN?

I've got them available to me here, but . . . I ought not to do that. Actually, you shouldn't. [You should be] going to protest so the world outside becomes one where you don't need to cheat to get around this problem, so that you don't have to use skills as an expert to get around this problem.

If you were to go back and redesign the Web from the ground up, what features would you have built in that aren't present today?

I think maybe we could've looked more into the idea of authentication and being identified and not identified. There are some parts where we need to be [verified]. I need to be able to write something that nobody can fake that it's me. Then there are places where whistleblowers need to have anonymity. We need to build systems that allow us to figure that out.


Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications, Internet access and the shifting media economy. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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