In August 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the first website. Fourteen years on, he tells BBC Newsnight's Mark Lawson how blogging is closer to his original idea about a read/write web.
Mark Lawson: Because of your invention, I was able to look up every article written by or about you quickly and easily. But at the same time, I was sent several unsolicited links to porn sites. I have to accept that someone in Mexico may have stolen my identity and now be using it. Is the latter absolutely worth paying for the former?
Tim Berners-Lee: That's an interesting question that you ask, as though it's a yes or no answer. As though our choice is to turn off the whole thing, or turn on the whole thing. I feel that the web should be something, which basically doesn't try to coerce people into putting particular sorts of things on it.
I feel that we need to individually work on putting good things on it, finding ways to protect ourselves from accidentally finding the bad stuff, and that at the end of the day, a lot of the problems of bad information out there, things that you don't like, are problems with humanity.
This is humanity which is communicating over the web, just as it's communicating over so many other different media. I think it's a more complicated question we have to; first of all, make it a universal medium, and secondly we have to work to make sure that that it supports the sort of society that we want to build on top of it.
ML: When you think in terms of what it has allowed, what is the achievement of the web?
TBL: It's a new medium, it's a universal medium and it's not itself a medium which inherently makes people do good things, or bad things. It allows people to do what they want to do more efficiently. It allows people to exist in an information space which doesn't know geographical boundaries. My hope is that it'll be very positive in bringing people together around the planet, because it'll make communication between different countries more possible.
But on the other hand I see it as a substrate for humanity, I see it as something on which humanity will do what humanity does and the questions as to what we as individuals and we collectively do, are still just as important and just as much as before, up to us.
ML: But do you feel responsible? You say humanity will do whatever it does with it, do you feel responsible for what happens?
TBL: I do not feel responsible for everything that humanity does, no. I suppose I feel a responsibility when people take on the web expecting one thing and get something else, so yes I suppose that's partly why I'm involved with the World Wide Web Consortium, and lots of other people are trying to make it better.
Towards a rewritable web
ML: I'm interested that at what sense you began to sense the possibilities. You weren't thinking car rental, you weren't thinking blogging, I assume.
TBL: Well in some ways. The idea was that anybody who used the web would have a space where they could write and so the first browser was an editor, it was a writer as well as a reader. Every person who used the web had the ability to write something. It was very easy to make a new web page and comment on what somebody else had written, which is very much what blogging is about.
For years I had been trying to address the fact that the web for most people wasn't a creative space; there were other editors, but editing web pages became difficult and complicated for people. What happened with blogs and with wikis, these editable web spaces, was that they became much more simple.
SIR TIM BERNERS-LEE
Born in London in 1955
Read physics at Queen's College, Oxford
Banned from using university PC for hacking
Built own computer with old TV, a Motorola microprocessor and soldering iron
Created web in late 1980s and early 1990s at Cern
Offered it free on the net
Founded World Wide Web Consortium at MIT in 1994
Named by Time magazine as one of the top 20 thinkers of the 20th century
Knighted in 2003
When you write a blog, you don't write complicated hypertext, you just write text, so I'm very, very happy to see that now it's gone in the direction of becoming more of a creative medium.
ML: Moving on to the consequences and the uses of the internet, the first question that arises a lot is the quality, the reliability of the information that is there. Now some people think that the internet has led to this great empire of lies, of unreliability. You simply don't know what the state of any of this information is.
TBL : When you say there are a lot of lies out there, if you go randomly picking up pieces of paper in the street or leafing through garbage at the garbage dump what are the chances you'll find something reliable written on the paper that you find there? Very small. When you go onto the internet, if you really rummage around randomly then how do you hope to find something of any of value?
But when you use the web, you follow links and you should keep bookmarks of the places where following links turns out to be a good idea. When you go to a site and it gives you pointers to places that you find are horrible or unreliable, then don't go there again.
You see out there right now, for example, when you look at bloggers some of them are very careful. A good blogger when he says that something's happened will have a point to back, and there's a certain ethos within the blogging community, you always point to your source, you point all the way back to the original article. If you're looking at something and you don't know where it comes from, if there's no pointer to the source, you can ignore it.
ML: You must reflect though on the law of unintended consequences because it wasn't remotely ever your intention when you started on this that so much of the web would be given over to sexual exhibitionists masturbating in their bedrooms with webcams. Do you ever have bad moments about that?
TBL: Well I don't see that stuff.
ML: But you know it's there though?
TBL: Some people tell me. I suppose the question is to what extent the people use it for things which should seriously concern us. For example, are people using the web to get information about how to do illegal things, whether it's to make explosives, how to kill people, poison people, or whatever it is. So there's a certain amount of danger that this tool can be used for bad purposes. It's a very powerful tool.
ML: And you've never had a sleepless night over that?
TBL: No I haven't. I haven't had a sleepless night over it because I suppose I'm so much more surrounded by the good things that people are doing with it. There are lots of positive stories of people doing great things, putting educational information out there for people in developing countries and things, for example. There's a huge spirit of goodness. Most of the people I meet who are developing the web are focused on all those things.
ML: You have a convenient benchmark, because you have a daughter who was born just as the web was beginning. Her stages of development are the same as the web in years. So, when she is 30, say, what would you want the web at 30 to be?
TBL: People often quite successfully compare the web with a growing person, and it's certainly had its years of adolescence when it's been trying to push the boundaries, see how far we can go, and I think some of these things, with spam and phishing that we see at the moment are examples of that. And people have been pushing backwards and forwards about piracy, and I think a lot of those things will settle down.
When it's 30, I expect it to be much more stable, something that people don't talk about. Really when you talk about an article, you don't say, "Oh, I'm going to write an article on paper!" The fact that we use pen and paper is sort of rather understood.
Similarly the web will be, hopefully, will be something which is sunk into the background as an assumption. Now, if as technologists develop, we've done our job well, the web will be this universal medium, which will be very, very flexible. It won't, itself, have any preconceived notions about what's built on top.
One of the reasons that I want to keep it open like that, is partly because I want humanity to have it as a clean slate. My goal for the web in 30 years is to be the platform which has led to the building of something very new and special, which we can't imagine now.
ML: Tim Berners-Lee, thank you very much.