Berners-Lee: Consider the people

The Web is making progress towards fulfilling its social agenda, its creator tells the Sixth International World Wide Web conference.

CNET News staff
3 min read
SANTA CLARA, California--The original vision of the World Wide Web carried a deep social agenda of empowering individuals, increasing society's efficiencies, and exploiting computer power in everyday lives, the creator of the Web told the Sixth International World Wide Web conference today.

Although the Web community may be distracted by short-term goals, the medium is continually evolving to fulfill its original, broader aims, said Tim Berners-Lee, now director of the World Wide Web Consortium.

"The art of progress is achieving the long-term goals via short-term or medium-term needs," said Berners-Lee. "Primarily, the trick is to have the right goal in mind: Which of these goals advances the general good? Asking that question can help make long-term goals happen through short-term goals."

Nor is the vision advanced solely by technology. "We can't just consider the computers and networks when deciding these things. We must consider the people."

Asked later about "proprietary" extensions to Web protocols that Netscape and Microsoft have promulgated, Berners-Lee defended the practice as necessary for the Web to evolve.

"Ever since when this went out into the Internet community, immediately everybody was making extensions. Now it's being done by people at companies with large valuations at the stock exchange. It will always be like that; people will always be putting things in.

"In fact, all the features that Netscape and Microsoft and others put in are fueling the whole development," Berners-Lee added. "If people like them, [they will] emulate them."

In that environment, the World Wide Web Consortium serves as a neutral forum for competitors to meet to standardize extensions. "Anything that's announced and competitive is called 'proprietary,'" he said. "We [the Web consortium] are there to discuss when people want to discuss."

He also underscored the need to keep Web protocols simple. "Generally, the philosophy on the Web is that if you design a protocol, design as little as possible. You must ask everybody to do something in common; don't require everyone to do something. Allow everybody as much flexibility as possible."

Berners-Lee spoke during the conference's final day, which was devoted to Web history, giving upbeat account of how the original Web vision has largely been followed, sometimes to his surprise.

"We didn't expect HTML (the lingua franca of the Web) to take off as it did," he said, pleased that HTML has become so widely adopted. "We expected there to be more exchanging of proprietary formats."

He stressed the Web's ability to evolve as a key to its success. Hypertext--the ability to jump from one Web page to another through links--was originally seen as too confusing, he said, noting ironically, "Now we have lots of working groups trying to make it more complicated."

W3C, he added, is focused on achieving the Web's original vision, even though the current market drivers are largely commercial: Web publishing, intranets, electronic commerce, and education and training.

"If something is necessary for these, then someone will have a product that will sell," Berners-Lee said. "The nice thing is that if you look at the features and protocols, you see that they also address long-term goals, even though these [commercial drivers] might not be consistent with the grander goals."

As an example of the "winding roads" of progress, he cited the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), the content-screening protocol developed out of community concerns and political pressure over children seeing smut on the Web.

"The fear factor led to PICS being rolled out, but PICS labels are machine-readable statements. Once you start with machine-readable labels, it's not just pornography you can address." Finding specific items for sale, or endorsements of whether a publisher belongs to a Chamber of Commerce, or content that is regarded as academically sound also enter the equation.

"If that happens, then maybe that will turn the Web from something just about data to things about real things...a real revolution on the Web. Computers will be able to go around and handle information about things in the real word," Berners-Lee said.

Likewise, the fear of downloading hostile Java applets could move the medium toward a "Web of trust" in which digital signatures could vouch for an author's identity and a document's authenticity.