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Live from London: RIWI covers Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web

“We are not using the Web to find solutions to Ebola. We should.”

– Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Oct. 8, 2014, IP Expo Europe, London, UK

By Bob Seeman, Chairman, The RIWI Corporation

Seeing the man in person who created the World Wide Web was just too much of an attraction to me. I travelled to London to line up first and sit in the front row. Last time I did that was for The Beach Boys in Royal Albert Hall.

Sir Tim spoke with no PowerPoint slides and, clearly, it never crossed his mind to take lessons on how to give a formulaic ‘professional’ public speech. Who cares if he can’t give that sort of speech? He is Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Sir Tim gave his predictions about the development of the Web.

He had so much to say in his allotted 50 minutes that he spoke super-fast like the guy after the TV commercial who slips in, “Term and Conditions apply.”

People might have told him previous to the speech to slow down, since, after a few minutes, he asked the audience, “Should I talk a bit slower?” A resounding ‘yes!’ arose from the thankful audience trying to absorb his wisdom. This is TBL!

The future of the Web is artificial intelligence. “Machines making financial trading decisions. Computers talking to computers.”

He speaks in such a thoughtful way that the speech might not just be for the audience, Web security experts, but it could be for university students who would comprehend and learn a great deal from the speech. That is a sign of a great speech.

Open data, one of Sir Tim’s (and RIWI’s) passions, is not, he says, just about government transparency. He says that open data is really about organizations and people saying, “Don’t give me a visualization of your data on your fancy Website. Give me your raw data so I can merge it with my data and come to new insights and create value.”(See RIWI’s open data work)

Hmm… better quality, shareable, linkable data matter more than a Website? People thought the precise opposite in 1997. Many still cling to the 1997 view.

“Targeted ads are not the future and not a concern to me,” he says. “’Big data’ is not useful to the user and, thus, users should not be paid for it when others collect it.” He was speaking to my heart. As RIWI has argued before, ‘smarter data’ is what matters. Data posted by people on a Website (say, Twitter), or Website history data, belong to the user – unless the user has expressly given it away. To repackage that data into large amounts and sell it to third parties, is, well, just about selling big bundles of noisy data, which are not necessarily useful.

Sir Tim stresses, “I want to build a world where the user collects one’s own data and has legal ownership and control over it. The user may then choose to sell that to companies.”

The future of Enterprise Data is that it must open up due to artificial intelligence facilitating computers talking to each other to be much more efficient. Organizations must ‘open the kimono’ of valuable confidential data to more and valuable partners.

“Privacy is very important. Privacy is not, like some say, dead. People and families function by having an information boundary. We have to build systems with privacy at the core,” he politely warns us.

He explains: “my healthcare data are private but crucial for health professionals to have if I get into a car accident. But I don’t want it used to sell me insurance. If the authorities have to stop serious crime or save lives, they need rapid access to data.”

He gives an example. A doctor may dictate to a patient, “we need access to your data since you took this drug and we need the data to help come up with a solution to Ebola.” That, says Sir Tim, is warranted by the potential of a global Ebola pandemic where vast amounts of people may die around the world.

“We are not using the Web to find solutions to Ebola. We should.”
“We are not using the Web to improve democracy,” he adds.

[For the record, RIWI is seeking to do both. It is hard – but to paraphrase what Sir Tim might say about the future of the Web, ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ Please reach out to RIWI if you want to learn more:]

And, as a parent who has just suffered through a teacher’s strike, he finishes his prepared speech with: “we need better tools to organize our schools.” Hallelujah.

Now, we are on to questions. Sir Tim peddles into an even higher gear.

The first question: “What about the ‘right to be forgotten’? A European court recently ruled that Google must remove links to old embarrassing, but true, information about an individual.

He answers thus, “in the USA, free speech is fundamental. Stopping people from saying something that is true is anathema.”

“But what if information is true but it is ‘water under the bridge’? Ideally, an employer or mortgage provider should request permission to look at old information − for their better corporate reputation. However, there might need to be a regulation to ignore old stuff. We need a world of appropriate use of data.”

What about Net Neutrality?

“The Internet, to date, has been predicated on Net Neutrality. It would not have worked otherwise.”

“If people charge or transmit packets differently, users get upset. In Holland they legislated against it.”

What about the dark side of Web?

“The Web resembles humanity and there is a dark side of humanity. It would be awful if we had a Web where we could only do ethical things.”

Do you regret that security was not built in when you designed the Web?

“All the Web technology was designed so early developers would more easily understand it based on previous paradigms,” he explains.

“The United States government could have passed a law when email was first started that the ‘From’ had to be true and/or a public encryption key was required. We could have made it so that all ‘http://’ would really have been ‘https://’. However, if we had started the Web with security, it may not have taken off. You cannot think of all security threats upfront.” So true.

Sir Tim ran out of time to get to the huge number of raised hands angling to ask him questions.

Even if he had given no speech and taken questions for his whole allotted 50 minutes, he still would have only got to a small fraction of the raised hands.

With the dawn of the Semantic Web, the Web is evolving into an ask engine, not a search engine or a Web of social media portals. More questions means better answers, which means better quality data. Sir Tim is emblematic not only of the Web’s beginnings, but also of its present and future.

Bob Seeman is Chair of The RIWI Corporation and former Head of Strategy for Microsoft Network, UK.

Photograph via CNBC