“The web is like a white sheet that we’re holding up,” Sir Timothy Berners-Lee told a Congressional subcommittee this morning. “And all these different systems are projecting onto it.” That universalityâ€”the ability for disparate hardware, software, and languages to coexist in the same mediumâ€”has been one of the drivers of the Web’s massive growth in the last decade, along with the availability of open and royalty-free standards that make such universality possible.
But, much like Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, Berners-Lee recognizes that with great power comes great responsibility. Every important tool allows people to do both good and bad things, and the worldwide Internet community has seen plenty of both as the web has empowered both individual hackers and humanitarians in new ways. As Congress considers regulations to crack down on such ills as copyright violations, Berners-Lee encourages them to first make it easy for people who want to do the right thing to be able to do so.
Passing laws, filing lawsuits, and tying up the court system is one way to deal with copyright issues, for instance, and such tools have their place. But the first item of business for lawmakers and standards-makers is to make it simple for people to do the right thing. Berners-Lee gave the example of better metadata for media files, arguing that such technology ought to make it simple to discover the licensing terms for any piece of media just by looking at the file.
Berners-Lee was in Washington to testify before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). As the subcommittee kicks off its two-year session, it first wanted to hear from the creator of the web to understand what made the web so successful in the first place. It also wanted Berners-Lee’s thoughts about where the Web was headed, which led to the comic scene of Berners-Lee try to explain the “semantic web” and the W3C “mobile web initiative” to a group of middle-aged representatives while interruped by the insistent buzz of a House roll call announcement.
In their statements before testimony began, the assembled representatives laid out their concerns: child pornography, network neutrality, the future evolution of the Web, and whether the Web was being used as an excuse for more offline media consolidation. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) sounded less than thrilled with some of the doom-and-gloom scenarios put before the committee in the past, telling Berners-Lee that the Web has become “the scapegoat of everyone who comes before this committee these days.”
In recapping the Web’s brief history, Berners-Lee opened his testimony by describing the three essential features of the Web as he saw them: universality, open standards, and the separation of layers. All three points were variations on a single theme: open standards for general protocols allow for others to build astonishing innovations atop the foundation. To illustrate his point, he talked about the controvery surrounding the rival Gopher protocol after the University of Minnesota began to license its own implementation, and users began to wonder if the university would seek a royalty from all implementations at some point down the road.
In the future, Berners-Lee “hopes” (he’s not a fan of prediction) that two low-level developments will unleash a new flood of creativity. The first is the “semantic web,” a model in which data can be linked, extracted, and reused across systems, even when those systems have not encountered such data before. While the Web works well with documents at the moment, it has not proved so adept at handling data formats; semantic web technology should help with the problem. This idea, which has been around for years at the W3C, has yet to make any significant headway.
Secondly, the rise of small, Internet-capable devices will bring connectivity to more people, especially in poor areas of the globe. Because the screens on such devices are so small, Berners-Lee described his vision of wireless integration with large displays. The idea here is that the mobile devices will function a bit like headless computers; personal data and applications can be carried around in one’s pocket, then accessed and used at any location that provides a screen.
Berners-Lee did not call for any specific policy initiatives from Congress. He did exhort them, in response to a question from Joe Barton (R-TX), to remember that other committees just like this one were meeting in countries around the world and trying to work out difficult issues of applying local laws to globally-accessible servers. The implied request seemed to be that Congress not assume that it needs to control the actions and laws of other countries, even when those laws allow Internet activity illegal in the US. Whether that request will be honored remains to be seen.