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Tim Berners-Lee: The Web is threatened

Approaching the 20th anniversary of the World Web Web next month, its creator sounds off about the threats to the freedom of the Web from social networks, Internet providers, and governments.

Turning 20 next month, the World Wide Web has become a ubiquitous part of our lives. But the freedom and open nature of the Web that we sometimes take for granted are threatened, according to its creator.

In a long article published yesterday in Scientific American, Tim Berners-Lee writes that the Web as we know it is affected by elements that have "begun to chip away at its principles."

He points a finger at social-networking sites that he says are "walling off information posted by users from the rest of the Web." Though he acknowledges that sites like Facebook and LinkedIn offer value, he criticizes their "silo" approach in which the information is self-contained and can't easily be transferred to or used on another site.

Touching on Net neutrality, he cites Internet providers that may decide to slow down traffic to Web sites with which they haven't made special deals. He also alludes to cable TV companies that now sell Internet access and are deciding whether to limit their Web-based offerings to only their own entertainment content.

Berners-Lee also takes aim at governments, both democratic and totalitarian, that violate rights and monitor online behavior, sometimes without due process. As one example, he cites the U.K.'s Digital Economy Act, which lets the British government tell an Internet service provider to cut off the Internet account of anyone suspected of copyright infringement.

As another example, Berners-Lee mentions the proposed "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act," which would have given the U.S. Justice Department the power to shut down Web sites "deemed" to be trafficking in pirated films, software, music, and other protected content. Though the bill failed to pass, its opponents have warned that the Senate will likely try again to pass it.

If uncontrolled, these activities could limit people's ability to use the Web as they do today, Berners-Lee writes.

"If we, the Web's users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands," he writes. "We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides."

To guard against this erosion of the Web's freedom and openness, Berners-Lee outlines principles to protect this tool.

He believes the Web must remain universal and that people should be able to publish anything online. The Web should be usable by individuals with disabilities. And it should be accessible from any device. The Web must also stay decentralized, so you don't need the OK from any central authority or organization to add a page or make a link.

The basic technology that we use to build the Web must remain free, with no royalties required, according to Berners-Lee. Open standards can better ensure the limitless nature of the Web, with anyone able to create anything--from a major Web site to a simple blog. Keeping the Web layer separate from the overall Internet is also vital since it ensures that the Internet can be improved and enhanced without any changes to the Web itself.

Finally, Berners-Lee believes legislation is needed to safeguard Net neutrality. Though he feels the Internet and Web are best served with a minimum of regulation, certain basic values sometimes require laws for their own protection and preservation.

If the basic freedom and openness of the Web are allowed to thrive, Berners-Lee sees a future with great potential respect for "basic human values."

"The goal of the Web is to serve humanity," he wrote." We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine."