World Wide Web Inventor Wants Internet to be Better Regulated

SINGAPORE (Kyodo) — The inventor of the World Wide Web on Thursday called for more regulation of the internet to better protect personal data and to prevent voter manipulation in democratic elections.

“After 30 years…not everything is perfect with the web. There are things that need to be fixed,” Tim Berners-Lee said in a keynote address at TechLaw.Fest 2019, a two-day conference and exhibition to explore how the legal and regulatory communities respond to challenges posed in today’s data-driven age.

“Every layer of the internet needs to have different laws,” the British software engineer, who holds professorships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the University of Oxford, later told reporters.

He stressed the need for laws and regulations to deal with problems such as data protection and also to prevent the manipulation of the public in democratic elections.

“In general, it’s good to have stronger laws about manipulating people in elections around democracies. There are lots of areas where we need regulation, I think,” he said.

Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989, observed that the internet started on a positive note with an overwhelming interest by people to discover new information and communicate better with one another, but over the years “things changed.”

For example, more and more internet users are now keen to exploit it for financial gain, as reflected in the widespread obsession with readers’ clicks that generate advertising revenue.

While Berners-Lee feels the need to establish clear norms, laws and standards that underpin the web, he also thinks the internet should be kept open.

“You should resist systems which only give you access to part of the web. Internet access should give you connectivity to any website. That’s one of the principles which is important everywhere,” he said.

Asked about the balance between combating the spread of fake news and the risk of curbing freedom of expression, and to comment on Singapore’s recent move to enact laws to curb the spread of online falsehoods, he said that Singapore’s case will be closely watched by other countries.

“To a certain extent we have to find international norms because there is no simple answer to it.”

Citing the 2016 U.S. presidential election in which many people saw that the electorate had been manipulated by fake news, he said, “There has been a pushback. So in a lot of countries, they may go towards the same direction as Singapore in making rules like that.”

“A lot of people will be watching how it works, whether you can actually implement the systems to effectively determine what is deemed false and damagingly false, so I think certainly other countries will look at it as an interesting experiment to see how it goes.”

Asked about reports that Russia might disconnect itself from the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee said, “Unfortunately, it is possible to build an internet in which countries are completely separated from other countries, but the value of it would be very low.”

“If the internet had been like that initially, it wouldn’t have taken off,” he said, adding that the effect on the country that isolates itself from the global internet would be very negative, both economically and culturally.

Among his many positions, Berners-Lee, 64, is director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a web standards organization that develops specifications, guidelines, software, and tools for the internet.