Thirteen years ago the Queen of England dubbed Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the worldwide web, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Today he received what in the tech world counts as a much higher distinction: a Turing Award.
The prestigious prize, presented each year by the Association for Computing Machinery, amounts to the Nobel Prize of computing and comes with a million dollars. Berners-Lee received the award for creating the technology that underpins the web 28 years ago. But he sees his creation as the work of countless other people—and believes that work is far from over.
“I have to accept it on behalf of thousands of people who have helped make web standards and helped protest when net neutrality was threatened,” he says.
A tipping point could be reached where people will realize ‘that data belongs to me.’ Tim Berners-Lee
When Berners-Lee created the web, it was a decentralized platform. Anyone could publish a website and link to any other site. But as the web has grown from an obscure research-sharing tool for the scientific community into a global medium for commerce, communication, journalism, and entertainment, the power dynamics have shifted. Today, huge companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix dominate the web. These corporate giants enjoy an enormous amount of control not only over what people see and do online but over users’ private data. These days, Berners-Lee is working to reverse that trend as the co-lead of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL).
On the better web Berners-Lee envisions, users control where their data is stored and how it’s accessed. For example, social networks would still run in the cloud. But you could store your data locally. Alternately, you could choose a different cloud server run by a company or community you trust. You might have different servers for different types of information—for health and fitness data, says—that is completely separate from the one you use for financial records.
“It’s kind of like when you had floppy disks and you had one disk for the application and another the storage,” he says.
Berners-Lee is working to make this a reality through an open source project called Solid. He hopes to create an open technology standard that different applications can use to share data, regardless of what that data is or what type of application needs to read it. Such a standard would enable applications—your hospital’s record-keeping software or a social network—to read and write data from the servers you choose and control, rather than the servers that belong to an individual company.
The idea that people will eventually migrate from today’s tech giants to more decentralized systems may seem like a stretch. But last year at the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco, Berners-Lee pointed out that in the early days of the internet, many people thought proprietary online services like America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy—all of which sought to tame the chaos of the web and the open internet—would dominate the mainstream market. Eventually the web won out. “You can make the walled garden very very sweet,” he said at the event. “But the jungle outside is always more appealing in the long term.”
That could happen again, Berners-Lee argues, as projects like Solid and other decentralized systems become more mature, and as people become more fed up with having so little control over their data. “A tipping point could be reached where people will realize ‘that data belongs to me,’” he says. And now that the Federal Communications Commissions internet privacy rules have been repealed, we might be inching closer to that tipping point.
More Than Just Code
But centralization isn’t the only problem the web is facing. “We thought it used to be enough to keep the net neutral and the world would be ale to use it to build wonderful system that which would produce democracy and truth in science,” he says.
“I think people have looked at the last 12 months and said actually there’s evidence that the web has been more of a purveyor of untruth than of truth because of the way the adverting revenue model encourages people to put things online which will be clicked on.”
You might argue that hoaxes and “fake news” are a good reason for centralization. If Facebook and Google could filter out the misinformation and clickbait, perhaps everyone would be more informed. But Berners-Lee points out that putting just a few companies in charge of deciding what is or isn’t true is a risky proposition. Instead, he thinks openness still has a role to play in making the web more truthful. He points to Wikipedia, which still allows anyone to edit almost every entry on the site. Wikipedia’s not perfect, he acknowledges, but says that “the net good of Wikipedia is huge.”
The key to Wikipedia success, he points out, isn’t just the technology. It’s the governance of the site, the process of coordinating countless volunteers and hashing out what is or isn’t true.
It’s a reminder that the web itself isn’t just technology, either. It didn’t succeed because of the software Berners-Lee wrote to make publishing and browsing webpages possible. It succeeded because of the work he and so many other put into stewarding it as a platform. That’s the reason Berners-Lee deserves a Turing Award, and the million bucks that comes with it. The future of the web will depend just as much on that sort of stewardship in the future as it does on new technology fixes.
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