Apple's iTunes, social networks and cable providers are among those impinging on the open standards endorsed by the "creator" of the web.

W. David Gardner, Contributor

December 2, 2010

3 Min Read

It's been 20 years since Tim Berners-Lee sat down at his desktop in Geneva, Switzerland, and fired up what has grown into the web that we know and love (and sometimes hate.) With his first website and a browser -- both on the same computer -- he became the widely acknowledged creator of the web.

But he's worried today. In an article in the December issue of Scientific American, Berners-Lee reiterated his open egalitarian principles for the web, but writes that the "web, as we know it, however is being threatened in different ways."

"Why should we care," he asked rhetorically? "Because the web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium."

Berners-Lee didn't directly address the net neutrality debate currently underway in regulatory and legislative circles in Washington, but he made it clear that he believes the web should remain open.

But how? As technology changes rapidly it produces new challenges and threats to the web's openness.

"The primary design principle underlying the web's usefulness and growth is universality," he wrote. "When you make a link, you can link to anything. That means people must be able to put anything on the web, no matter what computer they have, software they use or human language they speak and regardless of whether they have a wired or wireless Internet connection."

He looked askance at cable companies that he says are considering limiting their Internet users to downloading only the cable companies' entertainment. He also questioned the ability of social networking sites that capture personal information, then assemble that data, and trap it while walling it off from others. "Yes," he said, "your site's pages are on the web, but your data are not."

He endorses the use of open standards and worries that Apple's iTunes system isn't as open as it should be. Apple's addresses begin with the proprietary "itunes" - not "http," he notes, adding that, "The iTunes world is centralized and walled off. You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store's wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up."

Extolling the importance of keeping the web open for wireless phones, Berners-Lee said it was unfortunate that Google and Verizon have suggested that net neutrality not be applicable to mobile phones. Exempting wireless from net neutrality policies would leave mobile phone users open to service discrimination.

"Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively," he said. "The goal of the web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine."


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