Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee sees future of 'trackable' data

Sir Tim Berners-Lee talked up the importance of web neutrality and how 'rich and trackable' data will be essential in solving issues around online privacy.

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee sees future of 'trackable' data
Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee sees future of 'trackable' data

Speaking during his ‘Vision for the Web in 2050' keynote presentation at the IP Expo Europe in London today, Berners-Lee - who drafted the first memo on his idea of the World Wide Web some 25 years ago - touched on a number of topics from the progression of the internet and artificial intelligence (AI) to Big Data, EU legislation and internet security.

And one of the key themes from his talk was how he built the internet to be ‘open' and ‘decentralised' – something he hopes will remain the case for many years to come.

“What was great about the internet being a platform was that it was just a program you could use to connect to another computer without worrying about what was in between. The internet didn't worry what I was doing with it,” he told event attendees.

“That's the importance in the fight for net neutrality...it's a platform without attitude, without a centre. I didn't have to ask anyone's permission [to build it]”, he added.

“It's a platform on which you can do whatever you want...you don't have to come to me to ask for permission. If I am set up as a central point of permission, it would have been swamped and the central point of control would have limited the growth and competitors would set up.”

Berners-Lee continued that this net neutrality - which is the subject of a big push in the US (where more than 100 technology companies have written to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to oppose potential changes to net neutrality rules) - must be retained at all costs.

“Most of you have known net neutrality for most of your lives, but just because you've had it doesn't mean you will have it in future. It's going to need everybody to fight to keep it open,” he said, before adding that he's encouraged by the rate of innovation in an internet world that has quickly moved from basic HTML to JavaScript-embedded web pages and peer-to-peer RTC.

Big data, big benefits?

But in a 40-minute presentation which attracted a large audience inside the London Excel conference centre, it was perhaps Berners-Lee's comments around Big Data which were most interesting.

He said that too much emphasis is often placed around the size of Big Data, preferring to call it ‘rich data' instead, and he added that he sees a time where open and trackable data could well alleviate internet users' privacy concerns.

“Everybody talks about Big Data a whole lot; when people talk about big data they look at just one angle of it, typically a big data piece in a magazine is about how big companies are spying on you...That data which [firms] have about you isn't as valuable to them as it is to you.”

Instead, Berners-Lee used the example of a fitness application on a smartphone to demonstrate how Big Data could be used to improve lives, most notably in healthcare, so long as permission was required and the user saw who was accessing their data, and how it was being used.

He expects a future where end users will have legal ownership of their data, and that they will knowingly see when – for example – a doctor has viewed their medical history.

 “I will have control – and legal ownership – of data about me so that I can live life in more healthy way...The whole economy will be able to run more efficiently.

“So the future of the world involves data in lots of different ways, lots of different sources of data – and all in different shapes of sizes.”

However, speaking briefly later to SC, Berners-Lee admitted that this idea of trackable data may never come to fruition. "It's quite likely impossible," he said, when asked on this viability. 

But noting medical research in particular, he continued: "But there will be areas where it happens."

Security comes later

Towards the end of his presentation, Berners-Lee faced a question on security being bolted-on to the web and he said that the threats are always evolving.

“We do have to fit this stuff retrospectively. HTTPS is a big push so you make people direct to https, and there are even efforts to encrypt HTTP. Some stuff has to be refitted after the fact and I don't think it could be any other way.

“The specification of HTTP was one page, the specification for HTML was one page, and now they're both thousands of pages. So it's a lot more complex. You can never think about security threats in advance- you are constantly revising the system.”

Speaking to SCMagazineUK.com later on Wednesday, BH Consulting security expert Brian Honan noted that while people have concerns around big data, few actually realise they are handing over a lot of information voluntarily themselves, such as to social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Some are doing this voluntarily – such as to car insurance companies to obtain better premiums – but he believes it will take some time for this attitude to change, such are the concerns around personal information.

“I think we're going to see people getting to realise that personal information has a value and that it shouldn't be given away for free.”

However, he says that the recent iCloud hack (as well as Edward Snowden's continued revelations around government surveillance) is raising a question over who customers can trust with their data.

“We're seeing so many breaches that customers are asking ‘who can I trust now?”