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Tim Berners-Lee still believes the web can be fixed, even today

On its 30th anniversary, the web's inventor has a plan to fix our online mess.

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Tim Berners-Lee

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Three decades ago, a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee proposed an internet-based hyperlink system to allow the sharing of information among different computers, forever changing how people communicate and use the net.

The idea behind what would become known as the World Wide Web was both simple and lofty, he told an audience Tuesday at an event marking the 30th anniversary of his invention. It was about letting people all over the globe collaborate to solve the world's problems.

"Imagine you have a big problem like climate change or curing cancer, but the pieces are in different people's brains," he said at the event, hosted by The Washington Post at its headquarters in DC. "That's what the goal of the web was: to connect all these people."

But 30 years on, the web has been "hijacked by crooks" who could destroy it, Berners-Lee said. It's morphed into a platform where disinformation spreads like a contagion, hate foments and personal privacy has been relinquished to the highest bidder looking to make a quick buck.

Now, the 63-year-old said, he's working to fix the online world he helped create.

Where the web began

On March 12, 1989, Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN, a physics laboratory in Switzerland, published "a universal linked information system" to help academics from across the globe run a complicated particle accelerator.

Within a few years, the World Wide Web spread far beyond its first intended audience of academics and scientists. Fueled by the advent of the then-novel idea of hyperlinking, and a commitment to keep the protocols underlying the network open and free, people could share information on the internet simply by clicking a link.

This idea of a decentralized and permissionless way of sharing information was revolutionary. At the time technologists were still building mainframes to store data.

"There were folks who thought everything should go onto their own machines, and they invested a lot of their careers thinking everyone had to do it their way," Berners-Lee said. "The reason why people didn't go along with these systems is that they wanted to have their own structure and control."

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The hyperlinks let people categorize and organize their information any way they liked, and easily share it, too. The creation of the web spawned a global technological revolution and created an entire economy that thousands of companies rely on today. Three decades after the system was proposed, half of the world's population is now online, and there are close to 2 billion websites.

But it was CERN's decision in 1993 to keep the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, free and open that allowed the web to flourish. Berners-Lee described how the Gopher protocol, a competitor to HTTP, declined after the University of Minnesota announced it would charge licensing fees.

"I'm still not a gazillionaire," he said. "But that's fine, otherwise the web wouldn't have existed."

Trouble brewing

Berners-Lee said he was always aware of the potential problems of the web. After all, he explained, there are bad people walking down the street, and those people, like millions of others, have found their way online. But he said it wasn't until the advent of social media that these voices became amplified.

Still, he said he often preached the importance of thoughtful web consumption, telling people who complained of internet trolls to not "browse the garbage websites."

But he said he never anticipated how nation-states would use the web to influence elections and public discourse. After the 2016 US presidential election, he realized this was "not just about ... junk out there that you should ignore, but things that people believe" that have been "manipulated by some very clever and malicious people," he told the audience at the Post event.

He said it was at that point that he and the World Wide Web Foundation, which he'd created in 2009 to promote Internet accessibility and equality, had to take "a big step back" to "reconsider the web."

How 'pods' can help

Now Berners-Lee says he wants to fix the problems ailing the internet, and he launched two major efforts in November to turn the web around. The first is the Contract for the Web, which he says will make the web more trustworthy and less susceptible to some of today's problems. The other is a new platform called Solid, which gives users control over their data.

The web-contract project is meant to bring together governments, tech companies and individual citizens who agree to establish common principles to govern the online world.

"You can't just outlaw fake news. It's much more complicated," Berners-Lee said. "The Contract for the Web is about locking in a midcourse correction, a change of momentum, back toward constructivism, back toward science, facts."

He said it's important for as many people as possible to get involved in this effort, and he urged everyone in the audience and around the world to join the discussion. He used the issue of speech as an example.

"When it comes to hate speech and free speech, we know Germany and Texas have different traditions on where to draw the line," he said.  

The Solid project, which he's developing with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is meant to give people more control over their personal data, which today is being bought and sold without their permission. The idea is to give people "pods" for storing data, which would let them decide where and how their information is used by apps that are separate from the data storage.

That means you could control what data from your pods is accessed by services such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, he explained.

"You can have a personal pod, you can have a work pod," Berners-Lee said.

It's through these efforts that he hopes people will be able to take back control of their personal information and once again use the web for what he'd intended: sharing and collaborating for the greater good of humanity.