Tim Berners-Lee: we need a free Web, except when we don't

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The founder of the modern Web, Tim Berners-Lee, argued for government oversight of the Web as well as digital-rights-management (DRM) in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit Wednesday afternoon.

In fact, Berners-Lee adopted a somewhat more conservative stance on Reddit versus his comments to media like CNN and The Guardian, where he lobbied for an open Web. His appearance on Reddit and elsewhere commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the submission of his proposal for what eventually became the World Wide Web.

“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture,” he told The Guardian"It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

Berners-Lee also called for “independence of the Web” in a similar interview with CNN.

Compare that to his statement made Monday afternoon: 

“I think that some monitoring of the net by government agencies is going to be needed to fight crime,” Berners-Lee posted on Reddit. “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.”

DRM, as part of the free Web

The two statements aren’t necessarily mutually irreconcilable. But Berners-Lee was again forced to defend his support for DRM within the HTML5 spec, given his support for the open Web. (That support has been previously criticized by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose representatives have said that it “believes that [DRM is] a dangerous step for an organization that is seen by many as the guardian of the open Web to take.”)

“I would suggest to them the DRM question is not that simplistic,” Berners-Lee replied. “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 [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] in the US are seriously broken, and need fixing separate from the DRM question.”

Berners-Lee then posted a meme-style photo noting that many free Web advocates themselves subscribe to Netflix.

Still, Berners-Lee was at his best when assuming the role of benevolent deity of information, whose gift to mankind could be used for ill or for good. “The web is a—primarily neutral—tool for humanity,” he wrote. “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 [a] good thin[g] I think: much of the badness comes from misunderstanding.”

Berners-Lee also came out in favor of micropayments, of his parents, and, apparently, of spellcheckers. And, in a nod to his constituency, of kittens.

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