Berners-Lee has seen his creation debased by everything from fake news to mass surveillance. But he’s got a plan to fix it.
By Katrina Brooker for Vanity Fair
“For people who want to make sure the Web serves humanity, we have to concern ourselves with what people are building on top of it,” Tim Berners-Lee told me one morning in downtown Washington, D.C., about a half-mile from the White House. Berners-Lee was speaking about the future of the Internet, as he does often and fervently and with great animation at a remarkable cadence. With an Oxonian wisp of hair framing his chiseled face, Berners-Lee appears the consummate academic—communicating rapidly, in a clipped London accent, occasionally skipping over words and eliding sentences as he stammers to convey a thought. His soliloquy was a mixture of excitement with traces of melancholy. Nearly three decades earlier, Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. On this morning, he had come to Washington as part of his mission to save it.
At 63, Berners-Lee has thus far had a career more or less divided into two phases. In the first, he attended Oxford; worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); and then, in 1989, came up with the idea that eventually became the Web. Initially, Berners-Lee’s innovation was intended to help scientists share data across a then obscure platform called the Internet, a version of which the U.S. government had been using since the 1960s. But owing to his decision to release the source code for free—to make the Web an open and democratic platform for all—his brainchild quickly took on a life of its own. Berners-Lee’s life changed irrevocably, too. He would be named one of the 20th century’s most important figures by Time, receive the Turing Award (named after the famed code breaker) for achievements in the computer sciences, and be honored at the Olympics. He has been knighted by the Queen. “He is the Martin Luther King of our new digital world,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. (Berners-Lee sits on the foundation’s board of trustees.)
BERNERS-LEE ALSO ENVISIONED THAT HIS INVENTION COULD, IN THE WRONG HANDS, BECOME A DESTROYER OF WORLDS.
Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.
For the man who set all this in motion, the mushroom cloud was unfolding before his very eyes. “I was devastated,” Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. “Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.” Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted.
This agony, however, has had a profound effect on Berners-Lee. He is now embarking on a third act—determined to fight back through both his celebrity status and, notably, his skill as a coder. In particular, Berners-Lee has, for some time, been working on a new software, Solid, to reclaim the Web from corporations and return it to its democratic roots. On this winter day, he had come to Washington to attend the annual meeting of the World Wide Web Foundation, which he started in 2009 to protect human rights across the digital landscape. For Berners-Lee, this mission is critical to a fast-approaching future. Sometime this November, he estimates, half the world’s population—close to 4 billion people—will be connected online, sharing everything from résumés to political views to DNA information. As billions more come online, they will feed trillions of additional bits of information into the Web, making it more powerful, more valuable, and potentially more dangerous than ever.
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”
The original idea for the Web was born in the early 1960s, when Berners-Lee was growing up in London. His parents, both pioneers of the computer age, helped create the first commercial stored-program electronic computer. They raised their son on tales of bits and processors and the power of machines. One of his earliest memories is a conversation with his father about how computers would one day function like the human brain.
As a student at Oxford in the early 1970s, Berners-Lee built his own computer using an old television and a soldering iron. He graduated with a first-class degree in physics, without any particular plans for his future. He subsequently landed a series of jobs at different companies as a programmer, but none of them lasted long. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when he got a consulting position at CERN, near Geneva, that his life began to change. He worked on a program to help nuclear scientists share data over another nascent system. At first, Berners-Lee quaintly called it “Enquire Within Upon Everything,” named after a Victorian-era domestic handbook that he had read as a child.
It would be nearly a decade before Berners-Lee refined the technology, renamed it, and released the Web’s source code. When it first appeared in an academic chat room, in August of 1991, the significance of the moment wasn’t immediately obvious. “No one paid much attention,” recalls Vinton Cerf, who is recognized as being a co-inventor of the Internet—atop which the Web sits—and is now chief Internet evangelist at Google. It was an information system that used an older software known as Hypertext to link to data and documents over the Internet. There were other information systems at the time. What made the Web powerful, and ultimately dominant, however, would also one day prove to be its greatest vulnerability: Berners-Lee gave it away for free; anyone with a computer and an Internet connection could not only access it but also build off it. Berners-Lee understood that the Web needed to be unfettered by patents, fees, royalties, or any other controls in order to thrive. This way, millions of innovators could design their own products to take advantage of it.
And, of course, millions did. Computer scientists and academics picked it up first, building applications that then drew others. Within a year of the Web’s release, nascent developers were already conceiving of ways to draw more and more users. From browsers to blogs to e-commerce sites, the Web’s eco-system exploded. In the beginning it was truly open, free, controlled by no one company or group. “We were in that first phase of what the Internet could do,” recalls Brewster Kahle, an early Internet pioneer who in 1996 built the original system for Alexa, later acquired by Amazon. “Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”
The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways. Shortly after the 2016 election, Berners-Lee felt something had to change, and began methodically attempting to hack his creation. Last fall, the World Wide Web Foundation funded research to examine how Facebook’s algorithms control the news and information users receive. “Looking at the ways algorithms are feeding people news and looking at accountability for the algorithms—all of that is really important for the open Web,” he explained. By understanding these dangers, he hopes, we can collectively stop being deceived by the machine just as half the earth’s population is on board. “Crossing 50 percent is going to be a moment to pause and think,” says Berners-Lee, referring to the coming milestone. As billions more connect to the Web, he feels an increasing urgency to resolve its problems. For him this is about not just those already online but also the billions still unconnected. How much weaker and more marginalized will they become as the rest of the world leaves them behind?
We were now talking in a small, non-descript conference room, but Berners-Lee nevertheless felt called to action. Talking about this milestone, he grabbed a notebook and pen and started scribbling, slashing lines and dots and arrows across the page. He was mapping out a social graph of the computing power of the world. “This is maybe Elon Musk when he is using his most powerful computer,” said Berners-Lee, drawing a dark line at the top right of the page to illustrate the dominant position of the C.E.O. of SpaceX and Tesla. Lower on the page he scratched another mark: “These are the people in Ethiopia who have reasonable connectivity but they are totally being spied on.” The Web, which he had intended as a radical tool for democracy, was merely exacerbating the challenges of global inequality.
When about a fifth of the page was covered with lines and dots and scribbles, Berners-Lee stopped. Pointing to the space he’d left untouched, he said, “The goal is to fill in that square. To fill it up so all of humanity has total power on the Web.” His expression was intent, focused, as though he was calculating a problem for which he did not yet have the solution.
“I dumped a little code I had for doing things with email messages,” Berners-Lee typed one afternoon this spring, as he posted some code in a chat room on Gitter, an open platform frequented by coders to collaborate on ideas. It was a few days before Mark Zuckerberg was set to testify before Congress. And in this obscure part of the Web, Berners-Lee was busy working on a plan to make that testimony moot.
THE FORCES THAT BERNERS-LEE UNLEASHED NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO ARE ACCELERATING—MOVING IN WAYS NO ONE CAN FULLY PREDICT.
The idea is simple: re-decentralize the Web. Working with a small team of developers, he spends most of his time now on Solid, a platform designed to give individuals, rather than corporations, control of their own data. “There are people working in the lab trying to imagine how the Web could be different. How society on the Web could look different. What could happen if we give people privacy and we give people control of their data,” Berners-Lee told me. “We are building a whole eco-system.”
For now, the Solid technology is still new and not ready for the masses. But the vision, if it works, could radically change the existing power dynamics of the Web. The system aims to give users a platform by which they can control access to the data and content they generate on the Web. This way, users can choose how that data gets used rather than, say, Facebook and Google doing with it as they please. Solid’s code and technology is open to all—anyone with access to the Internet can come into its chat room and start coding. “One person turns up every few days. Some of them have heard about the promise of Solid, and they are driven to turn the world upside down,” he says. Part of the draw is working with an icon. For a computer scientist, coding with Berners-Lee is like playing guitar with Keith Richards. But more than just working with the inventor of the Web, these coders come because they want to join the cause. These are digital idealists, subversives, revolutionaries, and anyone else who wants to fight the centralization of the Web. For his part, working on Solid brings Berners-Lee back to the Web’s early days: “It’s under the radar, but working on it in a way puts back some of the optimism and excitement that the ‘fake news’ takes out.”
timeline of the web
It’s still the early days for Solid, but Berners-Lee is moving fast. Those who work closely with him say he has thrown himself into the project with the same vigor and determination he employed upon the Web’s inception. Popular sentiment also appears to facilitate his time frame. In India, a group of activists successfully blocked Facebook from implementing a new service that would have effectively controlled access to the Web for huge swaths of the country’s population. In Germany, one young coder built a decentralized version of Twitter called Mastodon. In France, another group created Peertube as a decentralized alternative to YouTube. “I resent the control corporations have over people and their everyday lives. I hate the surveillance society we have accidently brought upon ourselves,” says Amy Guy, a coder from Scotland who helped build a platform called ActivityPub to connect decentralized Web sites. This summer, Web activists plan to convene at the second Decentralized Web Summit, in San Francisco.
Berners-Lee is not the leader of this revolution—by definition, the decentralized Web shouldn’t have one—but he is a powerful weapon in the fight. And he fully recognizes that re-decentralizing the Web is going to be a lot harder than inventing it was in the first place. “When the Web was created, there was nobody there, no vested parties who would resist,” says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, the renowned venture-capital firm, which has started investing in companies aiming to decentralize the Web. “There are entrenched and very wealthy interests who benefit from keeping the balance of control in their favor.” Billions of dollars are at stake here: Amazon, Google, and Facebook won’t give up their profits without a fight. In the first three months of 2018, even as its C.E.O. was apologizing for leaking user data, Facebook made $11.97 billion. Google made $31 billion.
For now, chastened by bad press and public outrage, tech behemoths and other corporations say they are willing to make changes to ensure privacy and protect their users. “I’m committed to getting this right,” Facebook’s Zuckerberg told Congress in April. Google recently rolled out new privacy features to Gmail which would allow users to control how their messages get forwarded, copied, downloaded, or printed. And as revelations of spying, manipulation, and other abuses emerge, more governments are pushing for change. Last year the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion for manipulating online shopping markets. This year new regulations will require it and other tech companies to ask for users’ consent for their data. In the U.S., Congress and regulators are mulling ways to check the powers of Facebook and others.
But laws written now don’t anticipate future technologies. Nor do lawmakers—many badgered by corporate lobbyists—always choose to protect individual rights. In December, lobbyists for telecom companies pushed the Federal Communications Commission to roll back net-neutrality rules, which protect equal access to the Internet. In January, the U.S. Senate voted to advance a bill that would allow the National Security Agency to continue its mass online-surveillance program. Google’s lobbyists are now working to modify rules on how companies can gather and store biometric data, such as fingerprints, iris scans, and facial-recognition images.
The forces that Berners-Lee unleashed nearly three decades ago are accelerating, moving in ways no one can fully predict. And now, as half the world joins the Web, we are at a societal inflection point: Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?
It’s hard to believe that anyone—even Zuckerberg—wants the 1984 version. He didn’t found Facebook to manipulate elections; Jack Dorsey and the other Twitter founders didn’t intend to give Donald Trump a digital bullhorn. And this is what makes Berners-Lee believe that this battle over our digital future can be won. As public outrage grows over the centralization of the Web, and as enlarging numbers of coders join the effort to decentralize it, he has visions of the rest of us rising up and joining him. This spring, he issued a call to arms, of sorts, to the digital public. In an open letter published on his foundation’s Web site, he wrote: “While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people—and can be fixed by people.”
When asked what ordinary people can do, Berners-Lee replied, “You don’t have to have any coding skills. You just have to have a heart to decide enough is enough. Get out your Magic Marker and your signboard and your broomstick. And go out on the streets.” In other words, it’s time to rise against the machines.