The founder of the World Wide Web has condemned Google and Facebook for allowing the internet to become the “world’s largest surveillance network”.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned that the internet has fallen into the hands of large greedy corporations and Orwellian governments who are abusing the power of the web for their own gain.
“It controls what people see. It creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites completely undermines the spirit of helping people create,” he said.
“The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging.”
Berners-Lee met a group of internet activists this week, including Brewster Kahle, head of the Internet Archive, and fellow internet pioneer Vint Cerf, in San Francisco at the Decentralized Web Summit to discuss ways of “re-decentralising” the internet, giving more control to individuals and ensuring more privacy and security.
It is a subject that he has returned to time and again. Berners-Lee attended the launch of the documentary ForEveryone.net at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and talked about the importance of defending net neutrality in an age when technology allows unprecedented control of the world’s communications.
“The temptation to grab control of the internet by the government or by a company is always going to be there. They will wait until we’re sleeping, because if you’re a government or a company and you can control something, you’ll want it,” he said.
“You want to control your citizens or exploit consumers. The temptation is huge. Yes, we can have things enshrined in law, but even then it won’t necessarily stop people.”
Berners-Lee continued with this theme in a recent interview with GeekWire. “We’re on the edge of finding that a company can get to the point where actually it will control everything everybody sees,” he said.
“It will decide which friends’ posts and which news articles a person sees, and we realise that we’re talking about one big corporation suddenly having complete control over somebody’s view of the planet on which they live. It’s a constant battle and we are very close to it all the time.”
Berners-Lee is far from alone in looking at ways to wrest control of the web from large corporations like Amazon and Google and from governments that use it as a way to keep tabs on populations, as Snowden revealed, or to censor what citizens can read.
There is a burgeoning industry of privacy-focused sites and applications, such as social media site MeWe, of which Berners-Lee is a board member, personal information management systems such as Meeco and new transactional solutions based on blockchain technology and cryptography.
Others have taken the decentralisation idea still further, such as Scottish firm MaidSafe which is working on an autonomous internet with no servers and no central control.