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World Wide Web Inventor Sounds Alarm Over Government Monitoring of the Internet

LONDON – Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, is sounding an alarm concerning his government’s plans to permit intelligence agencies to monitor the Internet use and digital communications of every person in the UK. He warns that the measures are dangerous and should be abandoned immediately.

Berners-Lee, who serves as an advisor on public data accessibility, believes further expansion of the state’s surveillance powers would be a “destruction of human rights”. He further says such monitoring would open the door to theft of such information for criminal activity or release by corrupt government officials.

In an in-depth interview with the Guardian he said: “The amount of control you have over somebody if you can monitor Internet activity is amazing. You get to know every detail, you get to know, in a way, more intimate details about their life than any person that they talk to because often people will confide in the Internet as they find their way through medical websites … or as an adolescent finds their way through a website about homosexuality, wondering what they are and whether they should talk to people about it.”

Just a month ago, the British government found itself under stiff criticism when it was reported it planned to allow GCHQ to monitor all communication on social media, Skype calls, and email communication, as well as recording every site visited by every Internet user in Britain.

Berners-Lee said: “The idea that we should routinely record information about people is obviously very dangerous. It means that there will be information around which could be stolen, which can be acquired through corrupt officials or corrupt operators, and [could be] used, for example, to blackmail people in the government or people in the military. We open ourselves out, if we store this information, to it being abused.”

The creator of the Web spoke with the Guardian as part of a week-long series on the battle for control of the Internet. Berners-Lee came to the forefront as an outspoken defender of the “open Internet” in 2010 when he warned that web freedom was under threat from the rise of “closed world” apps such as those released by Apple, social network “silos” such as Facebook, and various governments’ attempts to monitor people’s online behavior.

Berners-Lee is concerned about the advent of “native apps” such as those produced for the iPhone and iPad, because they are not searchable. “Every time somebody puts a magazine on a phone now and doesn’t put it on to a web app [a form of open software], we lose a whole lot of information to the general public discourse – I can’t link to it, so I can’t tweet it, I can’t discuss it, I can’t like it, I can’t hate it.”

In a clear dig at Apple’s highly restrictive ecosystem, he said: “I should be able to pick which applications I use for managing my life, I should be able to pick which content I look at, and I should be able to pick which device I use, which company I use for supplying my Internet, and I’d like those to be independent choices.”

Berners-Lee also warned people against assuming that major websites and social networks would be around forever. “I think we need to be more conscious that places that seem very secure may in the future disappear. The long-time persistence of all this data … is an issue for all of us if we think that maybe our grandchildren, depending on which website we use, may or may not be able to see our photos.”

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