Tim Berners-Lee invented the web — now he has an idea to rein it back

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web: “An engine of inequity and division, swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.” (AFP)
Updated 09 October 2018

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web — now he has an idea to rein it back

  • This month the creator admitted that it had become “an engine of inequity and division”
  • He’s designed a new online platform called Solid to help internet users take back control of their personal data

LONDON:  In 1984, five years before the Internet began to throw its tentacles around the world, who could have guessed that a low-budget science-fiction film that made a Hollywood star out of an Austrian bodybuilder was a prophetic cautionary tale? 

In 1989, five years after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Terminator” hit cinema screens, a 34-year-old British computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, an information-sharing system that allowed documents and other digital elements to be linked over a network of computers. That network became known as the Internet, and it was the invention of the web — the horse to its cart — that made its explosive global expansion not only possible, but also inevitable. 

Berners-Lee was probably too busy inventing to watch “The Terminator.” Had he done so perhaps the plot — involving an artificially intelligent defense computer network called Skynet that decides human beings are a threat to its future and triggers a nuclear apocalypse — might have given him pause for thought. 

This month Berners-Lee, now 63, admitted that his invention, which he had intended as an egalitarian device for uniting and improving humanity, had instead become a divisive monster, “an engine of inequity and division, swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”

The naivety is almost touching. You build a free road, then you have no control over the sort of people who drive on it, the way they drive, the vehicles they use or the destinations they choose.

Artificial intelligence, a rapidly developing concept irresistible to everyone, from industrialists keen to delete human jobs to tech-obsessed early adopters who would rather tell their house lights to come on rather than go to the bother of flicking a switch, is a perfect partner in crime for a network that is already deeply embedded in every aspect of modern human life.

The recent revelations about the activities of Russian agents, prowling the world and hacking into supposedly secure operations such as international chemical weapons watchdog the OPCW, a US nuclear power company and Britain’s Porton Down defense laboratory, serve as a reminder of just how vulnerable the Internet really is.

As for the Internet of Things, well, would you really feel happy in a hospital where your medication is administered not by a nurse, but by a device responding to instructions from a remote server, an unnerving scenario that is already unfolding in some hospitals around the world? 

If that sounds like a far-fetched threat, consider that America’s Department of Homeland Security is currently investigating revelations that the latest generation of remotely programmable pacemakers are vulnerable to hackers who could assassinate targets by simply instructing the device to induce a cardiac arrest. 

The wealthier parts of the Middle East — a burgeoning region for all devices connected and smart — are currently more vulnerable than more mature markets. A study last year by IBM looked at 410 companies in 13 countries in the region and found that data breaches in Saudi Arabia and the UAE resulted in the highest per-capita cost, adding up to an annual bill of $4.94 million — up 6.9 percent from the year before. Criminal attacks were the most common cause of such breaches, with perpetrators chiefly taking advantage of the security headaches posed by the widespread use in the region of mobile devices.

Businesses have been keen to jump on the technology bandwagon, but less adept at making sure the wheels don’t fall off. Just how unprepared many are is highlighted by the fact that organizations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE took on average 245 days to identify a breach, and then a further 80 days to contain it. The two countries are among those that spend the most on cleaning up after data breaches.

Now Berners-Lee has resurfaced, taking time off from his current day job as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch Solid, a new online platform that, he says, will allow Internet users to take back control of all that personal data stored on private and government servers around the world.

It’s true that each one of us is merely a pixel in the giant and exponentially expanding snapshot of human activity in the 21st century that is Big Data. Almost four billion people now access the Internet, Google handles 40,000 searches every second (half of them from mobile phones), Facebook has more than two billion users posting 500,000 comments every minute, and in those same 60 seconds more than 150 million emails are sent — about one third of them spam.

In the wake of scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook users’ data, Solid certainly sounds like a good idea.

Push past the startup hyperbole — “I will be guiding the next stage of the web in a very direct way ... its mission is to provide commercial energy and an ecosystem to help protect the integrity and quality of the new web” — and the Berners-Lee solution boils down to this: Solid will enable a user’s personal data to be held not on remote servers by the likes of Google and Facebook, but on ... remote servers operated by Inrupt, the company Berners-Lee has formed.

The contents of, and access to, this so-called “data pod” will be controlled by the user — via yet another app, naturally — who will be able to decide which other apps and services can have access to which bits of it. 

But is this a solution to the problem of an Internet that is out of control, awash with private data that we, wittingly or unwittingly, have released into the wild for the benefit of commercial and other, more sinister, players? Or is it merely another portal through which “they” will gain access to the digital “us,” and another opportunity to forget yet another password?

The early days of the Internet on an Apple Macintosh. (Shutterstock)

Solid faces an uphill battle. Berners-Lee is going head-to-head with companies such as Google and Facebook. He is, he says, aware that what he is proposing would, if successful, upend their business models overnight. “We are not,” he says with bravado, “asking their permission.”

It seems unlikely that these multibillion-dollar businesses will simply throw up their hands and walk away. And no one so far has been able to control, curtail or otherwise restrict the Internet. As fast as any government moves to block or filter access, sharper and more devious minds are bypassing barriers. As security companies devise “failsafe” protection for online bank accounts, so those same devious minds are exploiting the essentially anarchic nature of the medium and leaping one step ahead of them.

Instead of inviting yet another player and their glossy app into our digital lives, perhaps we should start heeding the warnings of organizations such as the Oxford-based Center for the Study of Existential Risk, set up in 2012 and dedicated to “the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilizational collapse.”

To the CSER, the Internet, with its proven ability to incite political uprisings, disseminate fake news and propaganda, facilitate cyberattacks and “weaponize” the rise of artificial intelligence, is a threat on a par with catastrophic climate change and a global pandemic triggered by runaway biotechnological developments.

There is, of course, one simple way to prevent the theft and misuse of your personal information, whether by criminals, commercial operators or state players intent on disrupting entire societies: keep it to yourself. Stay off the Internet and trust no one  to manage your data for you.

Of course, in an era where access to the Internet has been elevated by the UN to the status of a human right, and many believe they will cease to exist if they don’t have a presence on social media, getting people to turn their backs on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter may well require a reboot of the modern mindset that is no longer possible.

In 2016, the British Council celebrated its 80th anniversary by inviting a panel of scientists, technologists, academics, artists, writers, broadcasters and world leaders to choose their most significant moments of the past 80 years. At the top of the final list, placed in order of importance by the votes of 10,000 people, was Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, ranked ahead of the discovery of penicillin, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the invention of the atomic bomb.

The web, pronounced the British Council, was “the fastest-growing communications medium of all time” and the Internet it facilitated had “changed the shape of modern life forever,” allowing us to “connect with each other instantly, all over the world.” Back in 1989, that probably seemed like a good thing. 

* * *

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Copyright: Syndication Bureau



Lefaucheux revolver ‘Van Gogh killed himself with’ up for auction

Updated 17 June 2019

Lefaucheux revolver ‘Van Gogh killed himself with’ up for auction

  • Van Gogh experts believe that he shot himself with the gun near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise north of Paris
  • The seven-millimeter Lefaucheux revolver is expected to fetch up to $67,000

PARIS: The revolver with which Vincent van Gogh is believed to have shot himself is to go under the hammer Wednesday at a Paris auction house.
Billed as “the most famous weapon in the history of art,” the seven mm Lefaucheux revolver is expected to fetch up to $67,000 (€60,000).
Van Gogh experts believe that he shot himself with the revolver near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise north of Paris, where he spent the last few months of his life in 1890.
Discovered by a farmer in 1965 in the same field where the troubled Dutch painter is thought to have fatally wounded himself, the gun has already been exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
While Art Auction, who are selling the gun, say there is no way of being absolutely certain that it is the fatal weapon, tests showed it had been in the ground for 75 years, which would fit.
The Dutch artist had borrowed the gun from the owner of the inn in the village where he was staying.
He died 36 hours later after staggering wounded back to the auberge in the dark.
It was not his first dramatic act of self-harm. Two years earlier in 1888, he cut off his ear before offering it to a woman in a brothel in Arles in the south of France.
While most art historians agree that Van Gogh killed himself, that assumption has been questioned in recent years, with some researchers claiming that the fatal shot may have been fired accidentally by two local boys playing with the weapon in the field.
That theory won fresh support from a new biopic of the artist starring Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate.”
Its director, the renowned American painter Julian Schnabel, said that Van Gogh had painted 75 canvasses in his 80 days at Auvers-sur-Oise and was unlikely to be suicidal.
The legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere — who co-wrote the script with Schnabel — insisted that there “is absolutely no proof he killed himself.
“Do I believe that Van Gogh killed himself? Absolutely not!” he declared when the film was premiered at the Venice film festival last September.
He said Van Gogh painted some of his best work in his final days, including his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” the local doctor who later tried to save his life.
It set a world record when it sold for $82.5 million in 1990.
The bullet Dr. Gachet extracted from Van Gogh’s chest was the same caliber as the one used by the Lefaucheux revolver.
“Van Gogh was working constantly. Every day he made a new work. He was not at all sad,” Carriere argued.
In the film the gun goes off after the two young boys, who were brothers, got into a struggle with the bohemian stranger.
Auction Art said that the farmer who found the gun in 1965 gave it to the owners of the inn at Auvers-sur-Oise, whose family are now selling it.
“Technical tests on the weapon have shown the weapon was used and indicate that it stayed in the ground for a period that would coincide with 1890,” it said.
“All these clues give credence to the theory that this is the weapon used in the suicide.”
That did not exclude, the auction house added, that the gun could also have been hidden or abandoned by the two young brothers in the field.
The auction comes as crowds are flocking to an immersive Van Gogh exhibition in the French capital which allows “the audience to enter his landscapes” through projections on the gallery’s walls, ceilings and floors.
“Van Gogh, Starry Night” runs at the Atelier des Lumieres in the east of the city until December.