“You have to use your imagination”
That was his reply when I asked what he perceived the imminent threats to the web to be. The use of old exploits to get at low-hanging XP systems notwithstanding, future threats to the web will require a little ingenuity to figure out — not least of which because the stakes are so high, Berners-Lee said.
“Because of the nature of a medium that’s used by pretty much everybody and pretty much everything, to be able to control it is just ridiculously powerful.”
And not in simple terms, either. Censorship or fast lanes, for example, are minor threats compared to that of pervasive surveillance.
“There are countries in the Middle East where they love you to go to the opposition website. It’s just that when you do, you and your friends are marked and you’ll disappear in the middle of the night,” said Berners-Lee. “The ability to understand which people are veering in which particular direction is a tremendously powerful tool.”
Positions of leverage, in the guise of (and perhaps even in the spirit of) philanthropy also constitute danger.
“Maybe it’s a social network that decides it’s going to go to India — and it’s going to be the entire web for everyone in India — but end up leaving the whole country beholden to one particular commercial concern for their news, and the selection of what they do every day.”
The real threat is not in the possibility of a specific kind of authoritarian control, but the subtler, more insidious manners of control can create outcomes as bad or worse as the rest.
“As a journalist,” he said, pointing in my direction (perhaps he thought he saw a journalist behind me), “spotting these things is part of your job, but also having the imagination to realize what new threats there could be.”
“The age-old story of capitalism and monopoly”
I asked Berners-Lee whether he felt that the titans of the tech industry exert an undue influence on the way the web functions — whether they were, simply by the scale of their operations, a problem for the open web.
“You’re talking about the age-old story of capitalism and monopoly,” he began. “If you have a system that rewards people for gaining market share, when they get a very large portion of the market share, then to a certain extent everybody suffers because innovation drops off.”
So far, so ordinary, at least for the last century or so.
“The monopoly we’re concerned about can switch very quickly.”
“But people were very worried about Netscape,” Berners-Lee pointed out. “And then suddenly they stopped worrying about Netscape, and they started worrying about Microsoft — because it controls the operating system as well as the browser. Then they decided the browser doesn’t matter. It was actually about the search engine people used. And then they realized that, actually, the search engine doesn’t matter because people only use it to go to one social network, and people are spending all their time there.”
The pattern is clear: “It’s reasonable to worry about monopolies when they happen, because they’re an impediment to innovation and fun and creativity. But also notice that the monopoly we’re concerned about can switch very quickly.”
It’s hard to imagine thinking of the Google or Facebook monopolies (or however you’d like to call them) as quaint five or 10 years from now, but by that time we may be worrying about VR agents and IoT viruses literally tracking our every move inside our homes. The internet and the web are evolving fast, and locked into co-evolution with them are the bad actors who have infested, dominated and ultimately improved them.