Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, emerged from an elevator into the lobby of his Seattle hotel Sunday morning, making his way past a small crowd of people and out the door for a quick run. Despite the pervasive impact of his invention on everyone in the room, and people across the world, no one recognized him or gave him a second look, except for the journalists waiting to interview him when he returned.
The scene demonstrated the low profile purposefully maintained by Berners-Lee, the 60-year-old computer scientist who created the web on a single NeXT computer more than 25 years ago. But his story, and the story of the web, are in the spotlight in a new documentary film, foreveryone.net, which made its official world premiere Sunday at the Seattle International Film Festival.
The film makes the case for web users to understand the significance of issues such as net neutrality and the importance of an open and unified web. It also focuses on Berners-Lee’s push to elevate Internet access to the status of fundamental human right.
In advance of the premiere, GeekWire sat down with Berners-Lee and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu, director of the documentary, to discuss the film and the fight for the web’s future.
Continue reading for excerpts, edited for length and clarity, and watch the full video below.
Todd Bishop: Sir Tim, the film makes it very clear that your brain is very much like the web. You think “all at once,” as one of your colleagues says in the film. It’s almost like you subconsciously modeled the world’s brain after your own. Is that an accurate observation?
Tim Berners-Lee: People suggested that actually it was inadequacies in my brain that (caused me to create the web.) I’d constantly need to note things down. I’m really bad at names and faces so it could be that actually using bits of pencil and paper and drawing circles and arrows … maybe it’s more the urge to use the web as a sort of extension, brain extension …
Todd Bishop: An extension of your brain …
Tim Berners-Lee: I’m not sure about that one.
Todd Bishop: Jessica, did you find that to be the case, that there are similarities between Tim’s brain and the world’s brain, in the form of the web?
Jessica Yu: Yes, I think what I also latched onto in the film was this notion of wanting to find connections that Tim has talked about. That meaning happens when ideas connect, when things connect, that the meaning is in the connections. That’s what the brain does, it connects things and makes associations. It became kind of like a conceptual point throughout the film. Some of our graphics definitely suggest that kind of brain connection.
Todd Bishop: Why was it important for you to tell this story? Sir Tim is obviously not a big public figure, and I want to talk about that later on, the irony of that, the fact that he’s created such an amazing invention, but he himself is not a pubic figure. Why was it important for you to tell his story?
Jessica Yu: It’s a good question. I was a passive, happy user of the internet, sort of an unquestioning user of the web. .. It was learning about the story, the origins of the web, that made me think we don’t appreciate what we have in the web unless we know this story — because it’s kind of a miracle that it exists the way it does, and that’s thanks to Tim.
Todd Bishop: Tim, what’s it like for you to have your story told in this medium? What’s it like for you to watch the film and what do you hope people will get out of it?
Tim Berners-Lee: When Jessica came to me and starting talking about the idea of making a film, one of the big problems we have is when you’re trained to keep the web open, to get people to become activists for keeping it an open and neutral medium, is that when you talk about net neutrality, for example, it’s famous for being really hard to understand and in fact it’s one of the simplest things. The net should be a blank piece of paper. But when you say “net neutrality is very important” then you get these glazed eyes. So I said, ‘OK Jessica, here’s the deal, if you can explain net neutrality and it’s importance to ordinary people then I’m in.’
Jessica Yu: I wanted to try to explain it in a way that my kids would understand it. Also, in a way that made sense for people who are really deeply in the thick of it as Tim and his colleagues are.
Todd Bishop: One of the most striking visual metaphors that you use is this system of highways. Creating a system where the net is not neutral would essentially result in alternative highways, slower highways, highways that would treat people differently depending on the type of car that they drive.
Jessica Yu: That’s right. I think that was certainly helpful for me to understand it and so trying to just make that work visually was quite fun.
Todd Bishop: On this topic, Tim, in the film you talk about your biggest fear for the web, that some company or government, or some combination of the two, should end up controlling the web. That’s another way to look at the issue of net neutrality and the open web. How close have we come to that fear of yours and how close are we to it now? What’s the risk right now?
Tim Berners-Lee: I think the risk is really, really high. When you say we have come close to it, there are places in the world where absolutely you are completely monitored as to what you do, and depending on what you do politically, you and your friends will be contacted through your connections on the internet and you’ll disappear in the middle of the night. There’s a lot of cases where the extreme of not net neutrality has happened, and in fact you’ve got a government controlling the web. Also, companies controlling the web. Constantly we’re on the edge of finding that a company can get to the point where actually it will control everything everybody sees. It will decide which friends’ posts and which news articles a person sees and we realize that whoa, we’re talking about one big corporation suddenly having complete control over somebody’s view of the planet in which they live. It’s a constant battle and we are very close to it all the time.
Todd Bishop: What should people do? That is part of the message from the film is that people need to take action. What action should they take to prevent that fear of yours from becoming a reality more broadly?
Tim Berners-Lee: I think the film is great in that you’ve found footage of people going into the streets with, you know, “down with ACTA” when ACTA was this agreement which needed to be fought to preserve net neutrality, and you found people of various different types going out there lobbying government agencies in America, the FCC, the FTC, and then tracing how actually this made a difference. The fact that people out there rose up to protect the web in ways that never happened before meant that government agencies suddenly got input from the public in ways they never got before, so I love the way you’ve told that story and I think that’s a great example for other people: this is actually what you have to do, you don’t have to just worry about it.
Jessica Yu: I think that Tim provided the greatest example of that in just the way that (he created the web). People think the web is invented, boom, we have it, great. Then, whoever that person was, he must be the richest man on the planet, and that was not the case. Tim created the web as something that should serve humanity. People should have free access to it. But what people don’t know about the other part of that story is that then Tim has devoted his life to defending, nurturing, protecting, keeping the web collaborative, keeping it one web, and that’s a story that’s also very valuable and worth telling.
Todd Bishop: Given the power of governments and of regulatory agencies, such as the FCC in the United States, as you look at the current U.S. presidential candidates, is there one candidate in whose administration you would most entrust the future of the web?
Tim Berners-Lee: I think that’s unfair as it for me to just — I think if we talk about the election now, A, we’ll get very, very sidetracked because it’s a ridiculous election and B, we will end up making political comments. … I think one of the really interesting things about the whole net neutrality issue, the whole issue of keeping the internet open, is actually it’s been completely non-partisan. You have people from the libertarian side protesting our ability to communicate. You have people from the liberal side, even though there’s sometimes a very different — they seem to be different parts on the political spectrum. You have people seeing that there’s been conservative values and liberal values because this, in a way, it’s very constitutional, it’s very non-partisan. It becomes more of a human rights issue really, it’s the right to be able to use this, a neutral medium to do whatever I need to do as a human being.
Todd Bishop: The film opens with a series of montages, including the scene from the London Olympics, where Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer talk about you and Matt Lauer makes that unfortunate joke about not knowing who you are, they both do. I went back and watched the whole thing and he says, “Maybe you should Google him.” It speaks to the point that you’ve really lived a low-profile life despite the magnitude of your invention. That’s purposeful on your part, Tim. Do you think you would be in a better position to defend the future of the web if you chose to be more of a public figure? Has that ever crossed your mind?
Tim Berners-Lee: I don’t think going into politics would help really. I think that, in a way, there’s a strong movement, a lot of people. If you’re interested in helping keep the web open then there are a lot of organizations out there that do it, like the Web Foundation, like lots of non-profits, and so there is a community of people there that people can latch into. In a way, if it were one great big system that I controlled and I went and made all the money from then it wouldn’t be the web, it wouldn’t be open, it wouldn’t have the same innovative power. … Because I’d be in the loop. If you wanted to start a cool new website you’d have to come and ask my staff and register and ask for whether we’d deem to allow you to be part of it.
Todd Bishop: Almost like you have to get Apple or somebody else to approve an app.
Tim Berners-Lee: There are lots of closed worlds out there. The world before, AOL was a closed world, which tried be very dominant before the web and that was also a walled garden in which AOL made sure that you had the best experience, but it could never be as good as the experience you had outside the walls of the garden in the jungle.
Todd Bishop: We talked about your greatest fear for the web as expressed in the film, that a government or organization would control it even more than might be happening now. What’s your greatest hope for the future of the web? If you could project out five to ten years or longer, what would be your greatest hope?
Tim Berners-Lee: That the principles the film points out become adopted as part of the culture. We add them to the list of human rights just as we add water. There was a time when most people didn’t have water and now most people have water so we say, you know what, we’re going to make a world where water is a human right because we want to live in that sort of world. Wherever our grandchildren end up living, we’d like them to be able to demand water and say the same thing, wherever our grandchildren end up living we think they should be able to have the right to connect and talk to whoever they want. Really it’s elevating it to that level.
Todd Bishop: Do you have preferred paths to get there? To that type of world where it is actually a fundamental human right? What is the path to get to that point?
Tim Berners-Lee: There’s not one path. In the movie you see that different people in different places in the world have realized, whoa, at this point it’s up to me to go out in the street and make a banner, or it might up to me to join a group, [lobby a government official, make a movie, join a protest, switch phone companies.] … Everybody’s got different ways in which they can help.
Todd Bishop: I touched on this very briefly before, but what is your take on the world of apps and the balance of power between the open web and closed apps right now? Do you see that continuing more toward closed apps in the future or will there be a rebound back toward the open web?
Tim Berners-Lee: To a certain extent there is a rebound back towards the open web because I think people realize that if you take your magazine, for example, you take your blog, and you make it into an app, unless you are very careful and build your app so that it looks as though it’s part of the web so that you can bookmark everywhere, and so you can mail a link to things, then if you’re not on the web it might be a great magazine, you might have a great UI, but you’re not part of the discourse because I can’t blog about you, I can’t link to you, I can’t tweet about you, I can’t like you, I can’t dislike you, and if I can’t basically reference you using a URL, then … you’re not part of the whole which is so much more massively bigger than the sum of its parts.
Todd Bishop: There’s just a natural gravitation back toward the open web because of its capabilities to connect everybody, is that accurate?
Tim Berners-Lee: Yeah, because you all, this blog that you’re making right now, it is part of a larger discourse. The fact that it’s on the web, I hope, and we’ll have a nice easy to find URL, means that people will be able to just tweet about it, bring people right here and start discussions and all kinds of different fora. That is how the web is a really powerful agent of change.
Todd Bishop: You are also involved with the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. What is the intersection of AI and machine learning and the web and where do you see that headed in the coming years?
Tim Berners-Lee: Now we’re getting a little bit off the topic, but down an interesting route. AI is important. I see to a certain extent a lot of the pieces of computing, the power that computers have, a lot of it has been done with the aid of AI. For example, computers which can understand your speech. That is part of AI. Computers that can speak to you, computers that can solve problems, computers that can find a way across, plan a way across a city and then change their advice when you get lost, that is all part of AI. Lots of the things which we think of now as just being derp, or part of my phone, is actually part of a big AI plan. The big AI plan ended up, we’re producing intelligence which can do everything that we can do. I agree with the people who feel that that’s going to happen and we need to be careful what happens.
My worry is that we may have some people who develop AI’s in responsible labs but then, for example, the military labs, the cyber warfare, may be less controlled and people may end up developing AI’s which end up getting the better of us and becoming the dominant race. In the long term AI is a issue. In the short term it’s just going to make life more and more easier and easier. Yes, jobs will change, but you know jobs have been changing for a long time.
Todd Bishop: It’s fascinating and you’ve got a unique window into that intersection because of your history and your current work. Jessica, you’ve had a unique window into Tim’s life through this film. I was struck by how respectful and yet truthful it is about him, in terms of the way his brain works and the way he operates. How should history look at Tim and his invention? What’s your take on where he fits in the world of innovation and his legacy?
Jessica Yu: We actually had the opportunity to film at the Museum of Science in London and they have a new section that’s all about technology and invention and the web and Tim. The original NeXT Computer, upon which Tim invented the web, is there. It is part of that continuum, but having looked at the story and seeing the immediacy of the impact, as Tim says, there is much more that can be spread. There’s billions of people who do not have access, but the speed at which it became so much a part of our lives is, to me, unprecedented. I like looking at the story in the bigger context. This also was a very idealistic invention in a lot of ways because in its origin Tim knew that if people didn’t bring something to it, if they didn’t collaborate, if people didn’t buy in with their own ideas and efforts, that it wouldn’t take off. The fact that it did is a wonderful way to look at what people can do together, as Tim says.
Todd Bishop: One of the most fascinating scenes in the movie is that the web at one point was there on your NeXT Computer, it was there. You could have unplugged it and moved on and where would be today, right? Is there actually anything you would have done differently looking back on the early days when you had the web on that computer of yours?
Tim Berners-Lee: I suppose the classic thing is the http://, I could have designed out the //, made it unnecessary and that would have saved so many keystrokes since then, but that wouldn’t have been a fundamental change, it would have been a little cosmetic change. If I would have realized the dependence we would have on the domain name system. … The fact is that the domain system is, I think, not very well managed. … The reliance on the domain name system is something that maybe I’d look at differently next time.
Todd Bishop: What would you do differently though?
Tim Berners-Lee: Just to be aware of the issue and have much more voice and to say, we’re use a domain name system, but here’s the deal. We want a world in which companies can’t buy more than two. Set it up so that squatting isn’t appropriate at all and have the whole thing run by a non-profit instead of by a for profit, actually.
Todd Bishop: Just in closing here, you’re about to show the film at the Seattle Film Festival, what do you hope, each of you, that the audience walks away with this afternoon? What’s the underlying fundamental message that you hope to deliver?
Jessica Yu: Understanding net neutrality
Tim Berners-Lee: Works for me. The understanding that if they use the web, if they spend 95 percent of their life, 98 of their life using the web, the other two percent they should spend thinking about how they should preserve it, help fight for its openness.