Governments and companies pushing for greater monitoring of Internet activity pose a major threat to freedom and democracy, according to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee, who is credited with developing the Web while working as an engineer at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, said the fundamental spirit of freedom and open collaboration that underpins the universality of the Web is under severe pressure.
Delivering the Annual Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA) lecture in the European Parliament, he said law enforcement authorities wanting to monitor the Web to fight serious crime should be required to seek a warrant from an independent body first.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor also expressed grave concern about companies which gather data on Internet traffic in order to build profiles of Web users.
“I don’t want any snooping on my Internet traffic. When one looks up something to see if they have cancer, or a teenager wonders if they are homosexual or not and wants to go online to find answers, this should be private. So systems that monitor every click and build a profile of me are very damaging,” said Berners-Lee.
He said privacy fears are growing due to the volume and quality of personal data passed over the Web, adding that monitoring an individual’s Internet preferences is “more damaging than having a permanent TV camera in my living room”.
Berners-Lee has campaigned in the United States for ‘net neutrality’ – the principle that Internet traffic should be free and unrestricted. The Web “should not discriminate on commercial grounds or party political grounds,” he said, before highlighting subtle ways in which vested interests can hijack the Internet.
He said that Internet providers, some of which also sell cable television and movie services, should not be able to restrict access to independent film producers.
“What if somebody could make it easier for you to get to a particular shoe store: it would be pretty powerful, commercially. Or if they could make it difficult for you to go to websites about evolution, then they can try to influence how you think – which is much more frightening,” Berners-Lee said.
He said that if democracy is to become truly participatory, it is crucial that information is delivered over a neutral medium. He was also critical of companies that disconnect Internet services if they suspect customers of illegal file sharing.