Berners-Lee: be a foundation, not a ceiling

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, made a ringing call for openness, decentralisation, and user control on the mobile web in his speech to the Innovation Forum at the 3GSM World Congress.

Some of Berners-Lee’s comments will be controversial among his audience of telco executives, suggesting a re-examination of some of the industry’s most traditional beliefs.

“The serendipitous re-use of information happens because when I buy an internet connection, I don’t specify the web sites I am going to connect to,” he said. “If you buy an internet connection, and you run a web server, then I can connect to your site. I don’t find my ISP saying that it wants to be my supplier of music and so it will block access to any site I try to load music from.”

This is perhaps not what the numerous mobile operators who are keen on applying DRM-based restrictions to their mobile music players would want to hear.

Berners-Lee characterised technologies as falling into two categories, “ceilings”, which restrict their possible uses, and “foundations”, which maximise the variety of possible uses and the spectrum of users who can adapt them to their own needs.

“Ceiling technologies are the end of the road for innovation. When you want to make a foundation technology, you need to look ahead. You need to put aside the short term return on investment questions and look at the long term,” he said. “A great example of this is the patent question. In 1989 my colleagues in the internet community would not have dreamed of patenting the ideas in the internet protocols.”

He went on to criticise the use of patents more generally, taking as an example the failed P3P privacy protocol project: “They claimed to have a patent on something to do with information being communicated and stored and affecting future communication. This has a devastating effect. Anyone working for a large company was told by lawyers never to read anything to do with the work.”

Moving on from technology to information itself, he argued that “unexpected reuse” was the source of most of the web’s value.

“The value added by the web is the unexpected re-use of information. People learned that if they went to the trouble of putting something on the web for some reason, that others would benefit later in ways they never anticipated,” he said. “The experience of surfing the web, which blew some of the early users away for days and nights, was of discovering things you never knew existed.”

Neither would his comments cheer those operators who currently bar competing VoIP services such as Skype. “When a US cable company threatens to attempt to stifle this aspect of the open internet platform, we have defended it as Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality was so much of an obvious technical and social prerequisite of the internet world, that it never needed a name until now,” he said. “It is a tension of convergence, where different business models and cultures may clash. I am confident that Net Neutrality will be preserved, for the good of us all,” he said.

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