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Web founder: Europe's 'right to be forgotten' rule is dangerous

Tim Berners-Lee thinks scrubbing false information off the Web is fine, but the truth should be preserved for reasons of free speech and history. Also: the robots are already here.

Web founder Tim Berners-Lee attacks Europe's "right to be forgotten" rule at the LeWeb conference in Paris.
Web founder Tim Berners-Lee attacks Europe's "right to be forgotten" rule at the LeWeb conference in Paris. Stephen Shankland/CNET

PARIS -- Europe's rule saying search engines must respect people's desire to fade from the Internet's memory is a bad idea, said Web founder Tim Berners-Lee.

"This right to be forgotten -- at the moment, it seems to be dangerous," Berners-Lee said Wednesday, speaking here at the LeWeb conference. "The right to access history is important."

European rules enshrined the right to be forgotten (PDF), making life difficult for companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo whose search engines point to that sort of information. The rule doesn't demand the removal of the original data -- for example an embarrassing news story -- but it does require them to screen it out of search results.

Berners-Lee's opposition is significant given that he's usually sympathetic to such causes. He champions online protection for individuals through support for things like privacy, free speech and Net neutrality. But evidently he believes the right-to-be-forgotten rule goes too far.

In a wide-ranging discussion at the conference, Berners-Lee said it's appropriate that false information should be deleted. Information that's true, though, is important for reasons of free speech and history, he said. A better approach to the challenge would be rules that protect people from inappropriate use of older information. An employer could be prohibited from taking into account a person's juvenile crimes or minor crimes more than 10 years old, for example.

"It's our society. We build it. We can define the rules about how to use data," Berners-Lee said. "That's much better than trying to pretend a thing never happened."

Twenty-five years ago, when Berners-Lee invented the software and communication standards of the World Wide Web, he was a technologist. Increasingly, he's taking that technology experience to the political realm. As the founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), he still has influence as both a luminary and technologist.

Robots and artificial intelligence

At LeWeb, he touched on several areas -- his support for Net neutrality, his push for privacy, and his concerns about the increasing power granted to corporations.

Corporations, he argued, are increasingly run by computers, pointing to Wall Street fast-trading companies whose algorithms profit by acting quickly. And at least in the US, corporations have free-speech rights and control money that can be spent on that free speech. That's a dangerous mix, he said.

"The robots are already here, and they're called corporations. Be very very scared," Berners-Lee said. "Don't ask when it will happen. It's already happened."

Artificial intelligence is slowly creeping into the real world. It's arriving one bit at a time -- a language translator here, some computer vision there. Eventually those pieces will be put together under a controlling system that we can call consciousness, he said.

"People imagine that a stream of consciousness is going to to be a hard thing to do," something as complex as our notion of the soul, Berners-Lee said. "I have a horrible feeling a stream of consciousness is going to be a few lines of code on top of the other stuff."

Net neutrality and more

Berners-Lee has plenty of other worries, too. Net neutrality -- the idea that one party's traffic on the Internet shouldn't get priority over another's -- is one of his core beliefs. Plenty of Internet service providers and mobile network operators -- the companies charged with delivering those bits from one place to another -- don't like the idea. Nor do they like President Barack Obama's recent move to support Net neutrality.

Berners-Lee, though, said losing Net neutrality could mean one company could encourage you to watch particular movies or discourage you from visiting a particular political party's website. "For a company to be able to control your Web experience is hugely powerful. For a government to do that is hugely powerful. So we have to fight very strongly."

Last year, he called former NSA contractor Edward Snowden a hero after he leaked detailed information about how US and UK intelligence agencies snoop on the Internet and phone network. The worries Snowden raised are also something of a distraction though, Berners-Lee thinks. One big problem: silos that confine our data and interactions to one zone or another.

"I think there's a lot of frustration with people who've committed huge amounts of their life to one or another social network," he said. People assemble lists of contacts, organize them into groups, and upload their own photos or other content. "They've done all that on Facebook, then they go to Flickr, and they can't share. You have to start all over again."

He also has a bone to pick with companies that build apps that work natively on operating systems like iOS and Android. Unsurprisingly, he wants them to write those apps so they'll run on the Web's foundation. That breaks down another silo wall.

"If you just take your magazine and put it in an app, it's boring. It's not part of the discussion. I can't tweet about it. You lose my enthusiasm. In a way everybody loses if it's not on the Web," he said. On the other hand, "if you build it as a Web app... every place in it has a URL [a unique Web address]. People can link to it, people can tweet about it. It can be part of the discourse."

Web evolution

A crucial part of making the Web a viable alternative to iOS and Android is expanding from static magazine pages to dynamic apps like games and text messaging. The W3C is at the center of that effort, but it's been slow going.

Berners-Lee invented the Web with two fundamental standards: HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), which packages the content of a Web page in a way browsers can interpret, and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), which governs how Web browsers fetch data from Web servers. In October, the W3C announced that HTML5 is done, a major milestone that cements features like built-in audio and video and that brings some patent protection to anyone using HTML.

But the W3C went through long rough patches with HTML. Starting in the 1990s, it moved away from HTML in favor of an incompatible cousin, XHTML 2.0. Browser makers including Mozilla, Opera Software, and Apple established the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG) in 2004 to keep HTML alive. The W3C in 2007 reversed course and embraced HTML again,

The organization is now working to advance HTML faster, in part through the adoption of smaller, more incremental improvements and in part by opening the door to community groups that can tackle new subjects with less of the formal baggage of standardization processes.

And a profusion of new standards are arriving -- WebRTC for video chat, Service Workers for apps that work offline, and WebGL for accelerated 3D graphics, for example.

Ultimately, though, Berners-Lee thinks more than technology is required to let the Web meet its potential. Less than half of the world's population uses it today, he said. "We have to make sure the Web serves humanity."