Tim Berners-Lee

March 12, 2014

I am Tim Berners-Lee. I invented the WWW 25 years ago and I am concerned and excited about its future. AMA

EDIT: I HAVE TO STOP NOW ... run out of time, have to get on a plane. THANK YOU all 10e9 for the questions and ... Do continue discuss here and with #web25 everywhere and webat25.org

On March 12, 1989 I submitted my proposal for the World Wide Web. 25 years later, I'm amazed to see the many great things it's achieved - transforming the way we talk, share and create. As we celebrate the Web's 25th birthday (see webat25.org), I want us all to think about its future and ask how we can help make it a truly open, secure and creative platform – available to everyone. The idea of an AMA is another great example of how the Web's helping to connect and empower people around the globe and I'm really excited to be answering your questions!

Proof it's me: http://imgur.com/o16DOPb

Remember to discuss the web you want using #web25

EDIT: I HAVE TO STOP NOW ... run out of time, have to get on a plane. THANK YOU all 10e9 for the questions and ... Do continue discuss here and with #web25 everywhere and webat25.org

Thanks for doing an AMA!

Given your work at the World Wide Web Consortium and support of Internet decentralization, what are your thoughts on the W3C Web Payments Community Group and their effort to standardize web payments using Bitcoin and other digital currencies(http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/networks/whos-who-in-bitcoin-web-payments-wunderkind-manu-sporny)? What impact, if any, do you think digital currencies might have on how value is sent over the Internet?

I think that it is important to have lots of different ways getting money to creative people on the net. So if we can have micropayment user interfaces which make it easy for me to pay people for stuff they write, play, perform, etc, in small amounts, then I hope that could be a way allowing people to actually make a serious business out of it. Flattr I found an interesting move in that direction.

Would that also include a variety of funding models, like pay-per-copy vs. tipjar-style donations vs. funding campaigns vs. royalties, etc.?

Ideally, yes.

A lot of people think that your calls for an open web are a bit hypocritical considering your support for the HTML5 DRM spec. What would you tell them?

I would suggest to them the DRM question is not that simplistic. People want to watch big movies. DRM is a pain in many ways, but if you have used Netflix or bought a DVD or a bluray, then DRM is part of your life. I agree DRM is a pain in many ways, and should only be used for very "high value" streams. I also would point out that Copyright, DMCA aand CFAA in the US are seriously broken, and need fixing separate from the DRM question. Actually I would get involved with a very long complicated discussion, as I have already with many people. Not sure we have space here. Other points include the the browsers have putt DRM in -- they have to to keep market share -- irrelevant of whether the HTML specs make the connection to the web more standard.

I would suggest to them the DRM question is not that simplistic. People want to watch big movies. DRM is a pain in many ways, but if you have used Netflix or bought a DVD or a bluray, then DRM is part of your life. I agree DRM is a pain in many ways, and should only be used for very "high value" streams. I also would point out that Copyright, DMCA aand CFAA in the US are seriously broken, and need fixing separate from the DRM question. Actually I would get involved with a very long complicated discussion, as I have already with many people. Not sure we have space here. Other points include the the browsers have putt DRM in -- they have to to keep market share -- irrelevant of whether the HTML specs make the connection to the web more standard.


But how do you reconcile that with

"Anyone who slaps a ‘this page is best viewed with Browser X’ label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network." https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee


Orthogonal. By pointing out that DRM, where stuff is encrypted between the content provider and the display to stop people trivially ripping it off, and closed device-specific markets are really orthogonal and it is a sign of the times that people naturally link them. There is no reason why you can't design a DRM system which allows anyone to sell movies encrypted to any device, with an open market. (I have been trying to encourage the TAG to think about architectures). [If a DRM blob (say in a creen) has a secret private key and a public key, the an open source browser can intermediate the key conversation in which the content provider checks that the screen is indeed the owner of the key, checks that the screen belongs to someone who has paid for the movie, then sends the movie key encrypted so only the blob cab read it. and then send the encrypted content.] Nowhere does this force you to use a DRM system which is locked down by the device manufacturer and controlled by them. One should push back against closed devices separately.

What was one of the things you never thought the internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the internet?


Do you think in the (not too distant) future we'll look back and think ourselves lucky to have witnessed a neutral, free, and uncensored world wide web?

I think it is up to us. I'm not guessing, I'm hoping. Yes, I can imagine that all to easily. If ordinary web users are not sufficiently aware of threats and get involved and if necessary take to the streets like for SOPA and PIPA and ACTA. On balance? I am optimistic.

Mr.Berners-Lee, doubt you'll read this but, no man in the history of the world has changed the way people interact more, what you've brought to the world has changed it forever, better or worse, your name may not be remembered for many generations, but what you've brought about, whilst perhaps inevitable, will continue, for centuries, assuming we make it that far. You have my respect.

Thank you, I appreciate that.

Have you learned to spell referrer yet ?

No, my speling is still terible. Hopefully not to much or it will get into header field names without some review at this stage!

Who was your role model as a kid?

My parents, who met building the first computer commercialized in the UK - the Ferranti Mk 1, and some of the people they worked with, my math teacher Frank Grundy, chem teacher Daffy....

'Math'? You're letting the side down, TBL.


ISO-8601 for easy sorting!

  1. My mother taught me that order. She picked it up when she was an astronomer I think. It is only logical.
  2. In fact be W3C standards compliant its YYYY-MM-DD
  3. [[In fact I tweaked the rdflib.js turtle parser to parse naked dates in that format to date objects just like numeric literals: it is so handy in inputting random data. https://github.com/linkeddata/rdflib.js/commit/fca9a45b9b7d0dc7da49367a0332ec69701d8434 would like to see it in JSON too]]

Edward Snowden- Hero or Villain?

Because he ✓ had no other alternative ✓ engaged as a journalist / with a journalist to be careful of how what was released, and ✓ provided an important net overall benefit to the world, I think he should be protected, and we should have ways of protecting people like him. Because we can try to design perfect systems of government, and they will never be perfect, and when they fail, then the whistleblower may be all that saves society.

what was your first computer?

I got a M6800 evaluation kit in 1976, and built a bunch of 3U high cards, put them in a rack with a car battery in the bottom of the crate as UPS. All hand-soldered on veroboard, and programmed in hex. 7E XX XX was a long jump, and 20 XX a relative jump IIRC. The display was an old TV and some logic and a bunch of discarded calculator buttons lovingly relabeled with transfer letters. Those were the days....

Did you ever post a picture of your cat?

Dog: Yes, Cat: No.

Do you ever look at the stuff on the web now and feel like Robert Oppenheimer?

No, not really. The web is a -- primarily neutral -- tool for humanity. When you look at humanity you see the good and the bad, the wonderful and the awful. A powerful tool can be used for good or ill. Things which are really bad are illegal on the web as they are off it. On balance, communication is good think I think: much of the badness comes from misunderstanding.

How do you see Edward Snowden?

(see below)

Tim, What other names did you consider other than the world wide web?

Mine of Information, The Information Mine, The Mesh

None had quite the right ring. I liked WWW partly because I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples' (in a C world) ...in fact I used HT for them)

Tim Berners-Lee just left a parenthesis unclosed...

Guilty (well, unopened, actually. Here is an extra one to make up.

Something I've been wondering for a while: did the name "World Wide Web" have anything to do with the "WorldWeb" in Dan Simmons' 1989 novel "Hyperion"? (the timing is a funny coincidence if not)

No, didn't read that

I dont really have anything to ask, i'd just want to thank you.

Alright.. maybe one question. What site do visit on a daily basis?

w3.org Since the beginning W3C has worked in the web. "If it isn't on the web it doesn't exist" when it comes to discussing things in meetings etc.

Thank you very much for doing an AMA.

I can not thank you enough for what you have done in inventing the web and bettering it and making content and information accessible and usable for all!

I just wanted to say thank you. I devote my time to designing and developing interactions and experiences that a simple, intuitive, and delightful.

I don't know what I'd be doing if it wasn't for your work. I don't know where the world would be without your work.

Many, many thanks!

You are very welcome! Use it any time you like ... :-)

What are your thoughts on the increased surveillance on internet based mediums like GCHQ's monitoring of all the Yahoo video chats. Do you personally think it should be controlled, non existent or fine the way it is now?

I think that some monitoring of the net by government agencies is going to be needed to fight crime. We need to invent a new system of checks and balances with unprecedented power to be able to investigate and hold the agencies which do it accountable to the public.

where do you think the web will end up in the next 25 years?

It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions ... we can chose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice.

Do you consider a hamburger to be a type of sandwich, or an entity of its own?

Your culture is where you went to High School. As a Brit, then, no: "sandwich" does not include "burger". Mathematically, though, a burger is a sandwich.

Is it true that error 404 came to be as a result of there not being a room 404 in the office you were working at?

No. Nonsense.

Why does no one mention Robert Cailliau anymore when it comes to the www? Didn't both of you invent it?

Robert didn't invent it. I invented it by myself, and coded it up on a NeXT, but Robert was the first convert to it, and a massive supporter. He got resources together at CERN, helped find students, gave talks. He also later wrote some code for a Mac browser called "Samba". He also put a lot of energy into persuading the CERN directorate that CERN should declare that it would not charge royalties for the WWW, which it did April 1993.

How do you feel about the supposed dark side of the internet, such as the black markets? (Silk Road etc.)

Complicated question. I am not a great expert on them. Simple answers include of course that illegal things are crimes on or off the web. But anonymity is tricky. We have a right to be anonymous as a whistle-blower or under an oppressive regime but not when we are bullying someone? How can we build technical/social/judicial systems for determining which right is more important in any given case? Relates to tor...

An Internet Bill of Rights feels like a nice concept, but even with the right intentions, it also feels like it centralizes power. And the goal of the Web today is to decentralize power. Can you explain how the two might balance?

Funny - I don't see how a bill of rights (like the right to connect with whoever you want to) centralizes power. I think is lays the basis for steering laws, and governments are rather centralized things, but rights constrain governments for the benefit of individuals.

There's a difference between rights that the government has to take action to uphold and those that it does not. The only thing the government has to do to uphold the second kind is . . . nothing. All the government has to do is stay out of people's way. Free speech is an example. The government upholds the right to free speech by not doing anything that gets in the way of people's free speech. I don't see how these kinds of rights centralize power; in fact, they seem to do the opposite.

That assumes that the failure mode is the government blocking free speech. But suppose your ISP is the one blocking your posts, or a review site is quietly suppressing your reviews unfavorable reviews unfavorable ot its partner companies? Is it not then case that the government has the job to step in to preserve your free speech?

(It seems sometimes US citizens are brought up to distrust the government but have a touching faith in corporations, but in Europe it is the other way around. We need to be aware of all possible failure modes.)

While the web has advanced a lot in the last 25 years, a lot of the user-facing machinery remains the same. My web browser, for example, is faster and has some different functionality, but it still feels very much like Netscape Navigator did in 1994.

Do you have any ideas about how interface for the web could change in a real, transformational way?

I think that is a really good question. I don't have the answer off the top of my head. Also think when your vision can be completely surrounded with pixels so small you can't see them, a very powerful interface -- how cna we use that -- and to be creative together, not just watch? Inter-creativity I called it early on. Still don't have it.

Did you ever think that the internet would get this big?

Yes, I more or less had it nailed down when it comes to the growth curve. I didn't get it completely right --- 25 years ago I was predicting Id be asked to do an AMA on reddit next wek, but it turned out to be this week. Well, we all make mistakes.

(no of course not)

Do you still have an interest in trainspotting?

Still like trains, travel on them when I can and when in a country which has gotten its train act together.

Mr. Berners-Lee, the first picture on the WWW is a group of women from CERN at what appears to be a party. Is there a story behind them?

Actually it was a lot of cheek (which he has a lot of) for Silvano to suggest that was the first picture on the web. There is no evidence to that effect, apart from that he has got away with it so far. The original NeXT browser would allow you to link HTML files to all kinds of things, movies, images, sounds. (Cool machine, the NeXT) . So people may very early on have put all kinds of things up. I tended to use HTML with talks, with links to diagrams as (typically) postscript. Les Horribles Cernettes were a band where Silvano played and did AV, and the girls in question sang. Silvano is and was a very creative individual in many ways, music, movies, code. etc... and a great spirit (whether or not it really was the first photo!)

What web browser do you use?

My default browser at the moment is Firefox. I also use Safari, Opera and Chrome each a reasonable amount. Firefox has the Tabulator plugin which does neat things with linked data. If I am running a latest version of that (I check it straight out of github) which can be unstable, I'll use one of the others for things which need to be stable. Joe Presbrey ported the plugin to Chrome too BTW

Hi Tim we began a campaign last year to establish a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights (www.uddr.org) as a natural extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the digital age. We have a detailed plan on how to achieve this and are poised to kick it off presently. Is this something you would be interested in supporting and if so how can we work with you on this?

Cool -- that is very much in line with what we want people to do with the webwewant.org campaign and webat25.org .. all these things should coordinate and join forces, it seems.

How did you feel being shown off so elaborately during the London Olympics?

That show was a lot of fun. Danny Boyle is really nice, working with 15,000 other volunteers was amazing, also being able to be in the stadium and meet other people backstage. Like a massive amateur musical. Just pulled together at the last minute. And I liked it that it was poking fun on the weather and not skipping the downsides of things like the industrial evolution, not all upbeat.

Google scholar I think is a move in the right direction. We have JSTOR etc now but I dislike due to costs to read, not super awesome interface, not inclusive of all/many good published relevant articles, etc. I think lots of room for improvement.

JSTOR is fine for you if someone else -- your University -- pays your subscription. Not if you are an independent scholar, school kid, or bright excited online poor person.

You talked recently about having a "Magna Carta" of sorts for the web. How do you envision that sort of system working?

Well, what do you think? Crowdsource a bill of rights at the very high level -- values level -- globally, non-nationally, in the first half of this year, and then in the second half of the year in each country make a list of the changes to the national system which will be necessary to implement it? That is plan A I think. See webwewant.org

What is the thing your most proud of about the world wide web?

The wonderful global collaborative spirit of all the people who turned up to help build it and build things on it.

This interview was transcribed from an "ask me anything" question and answer session with Tim Berners-Lee conducted on Reddit on 2014-03-12. The Reddit AMA can be found here.