Web driver issues free ticket to ride

March 30, 2001

In the second of a series on intellectual property rights, Tim Berners-Lee tells Roisin Woolnough that the net must be a public space.

When Tim Berners-Lee created the worldwide web, he compared its working to that of a free-market economy. It was a place where anyone could trade with anyone else regardless of geography. His vision was of a global space where people could share information, ideas and goods unfettered by any central body.

To make this a reality, Berners-Lee thought it crucial to keep the web's infrastructure free and easily accessible. He did not patent any of his inventions because that would have contradicted the spirit of what he was trying to achieve. He did not want any individual or group to own the web. His priority was to make technology accessible to everyone, not to create a product for financial gain. Berners-Lee also thought that if he had a commercial interest, it would be hard to remain neutral about developments on the web and true to his original vision.

While Berners-Lee was creating the web, several other prominent figures were developing similar projects. Had Berners-Lee not beaten them to it, he thinks the web could have been very different from what it is today. "It would have been taken up by a publisher, and it would have been a proprietary system. You would be published only by going to a mammoth organisation and asking for some space," he says.

To illustrate why he always wanted the web to be open and non-proprietary, Berners-Lee has used the analogy of an information highway. "TCP or HTML are like a roadway going through the countryside, connecting to interesting proprietary products. The public road gives you access to private buildings, and it's a public framework through which you can get to all sorts of sites, services and businesses. If you turn it around, and the buildings are public but the roads are private and you have to pay tolls to get to some public buildings, it's a commercial throttle, denying access to the public."

One way in which Berners-Lee pushes the issue of the web as a free public space is as director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a forum of companies and organisations set up in 1994 to oversee the web's development. Part of W3C's role is to keep the web free of central control.

Berners-Lee also keeps a wary eye on web-related patents. He thinks patents for some products are vital or "web development as we know it could come to an end", but he is unsure that patenting products on the web will be widely accepted. He repeats that charges should not be made for infrastructure. "The internet revolution is one thing helping another helping another, and it is essential that that is patent-free."

The web's creator came from an academic information technology culture in which sharing information and ideas was a central tenet, and he worked with several IT luminaries to realise his dream. It all started in 1980 when Berners-Lee left the United Kingdom to take up a six-month placement as a software consultant at Cern, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. To help himself remember all the people, computers and projects he encountered at Cern, Berners-Lee devised a program that he called Enquire - short for Enquire Within upon Everything, the title of a Victorian book of advice that his parents had owned.

Enquire was a web-like program that stored information by using random associations. Berners-Lee would type in a page of information, with each page being a node in the program. To create a new node, he would make a link from the old node.

Enquire was lost when Berners-Lee's stint at Cern ended, but it laid the foundations for what was to come. It was also about this time that the internet and hypertext were taking off, adding fuel to Berners-Lee's vision of global connectivity.

Many people find it hard to differentiate the internet from the web. The internet is a physical network of networks - the cables that run between computers and allow people to use applications such as email. It was created in the 1970s but was used only by a select community for very specific purposes.

The web is much more abstract. It allows people to find and disseminate information, with the connections being hypertext links rather than cables. In creating the web, Berners-Lee standardised technology that allowed computers to communicate with each other. It was not until the web emerged in 1989 and then moved into the wider public realm in 1991 that the net went mainstream.

"Before the web, there was the internet and there were computers all over the place," Berners-Lee says. "But they were all incompatible, and you needed different hardware to get at them, and sometimes different software. There were huge barriers to getting at information. In fact, you had to be a technological whizz on the internet and at using a particular computer and system."

Having cracked the technological problems, Berners-Lee faced what was perhaps an even tougher hurdle: convincing the right people of the web's potential. Although lots of people were excited by it, Berners-Lee was frustrated by the slow take-up and feared that other similar projects would gain acceptance before his did.

If he had ever been tempted to cash in on his inventions, he received a stark warning early on of what might happen should he try to charge people to access the web. While he was developing his ideas, academics at the University of Minnesota in the United States built an information system called gopher. It proved to be so popular that the university decided to ask some people for a fee to use it. This outraged the academic and internet communities, and developers shied away from using anything related to the gopher protocol for fear of being sued for infringing on intellectual property. So the IT industry abandoned gopher.

This debacle prompted Berners-Lee to get a signed declaration from Cern that the web protocol and code would be available to people free of charge. "If I hadn't, people would have avoided it. Companies and individuals committed huge amounts of time and energy because it was open and free and they thought it was a good idea. For the web, more than anything else, accessibility is fundamental and everything was always developed and shared."

Berners-Lee would like to see patents used solely to protect research done by individuals and companies. "If patents work as they are supposed to, they should protect the small inventors in the garage and large companies who need to protect their research." But he thinks patents tend just to mean more revenue for the greedy.

As technology advances, Berners-Lee is particularly disappointed that developing countries are being left behind. "Technology has certainly increased the divide between the haves and have-nots. Internet technology was invented by the West for the West and relies on an established network of telephone lines that use modems. We should be looking at making technology that works without an organised social infrastructure, such as wireless communications. It is very important to invest in helping third world countries get up to speed. It is the duty of richer countries to help."

Although Berners-Lee feels strongly about the digital divide, his attention is focused primarily on how the web will develop more generally. Having achieved his initial dream of a global, decentralised space where people can communicate, he wants to realise the second part of his vision: technology that can understand and analyse information, acting as intelligent agents for humans. He calls this the "semantic web", or "knowledge representation". And he is so excited by the possibilities of the semantic web that he is getting back to basics at his computer. "It's got me writing code again," he says.

  The ownership of knowledge, back to contents

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