Sir Tim Berners-Lee On Open Data, Privacy, eHealth And The Birth Of The Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee On Open Data, Privacy, eHealth And The Birth Of The Web

At the launch of the CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke on a variety of connected world topics, including the importance of making certain bits of data private, and why new projects are essentially bobsleds.

Berners-Lee gave the keynote speech, which covered a variety of areas. He equates the birth of the web with good managerial practice, noting that

One of the reasons that innovation happens is because great bosses let you do things on the side.

In his case, that revolved around using his new (at the time) NeXT computer

“I was a software engineer working at CERN; there were people coming form all over the world to do physics; that takes a lot of coordination. There was no rule that everybody had to use the same kind of computer. Now it now it would be Android, or iPhone, or do they come with Linux> Then, there were a wide number of different mainframes and mincomputer, and people were wedded to them. So when they produced documents, they used their favourite computers, favourite documentation system, or if they didn’t have one, they wrote one themselves. Even if you did write a system, if physicists at the time found a possible thing wrong with a word processor, they would rewrite it themselves.

It wasn’t entirely easy steering at first:

The process of getting the Web working was a bit like a bobsled. A bobsled is very heavy, to get momentum is very hard. There is a critical point where the bobsled has picked up momentum and is going downhill. If you don’t steer it then all is lost. Vint Cerf built the net without knowing about it, or without caring; they built as a platform that did not dictate what it was going to be used for; a platform that does not dictate what kinds of apps are built on top of it.”

Berners-Lee is a great advocate of open data under specific circumstances, and he reckons that often people get the focus on data slightly askew:

The myth is that of my data… is that the value is only to a large company that wants to track me. You could include all the data; my computer, my phone, my accelerometer; that’s an awful lot of health data. If my battery would last long enough to last; who’s that most valuable to? Me. Nobody else is more interested in my health than me. Nobody else is more interested in merging that data with which drugs I should be taking. One of the things we’ve missed is the personal value of that data integration.

Still, he’s aware that not all data access needs to be entirely open:

There’s a huge amount of (government) data where privacy doesn’t apply. Some where it does; salary data typically. Saying how much it costs to run a school — that’s valuable; but if you’ve only got one teacher at that school you’ve got to be careful. The art of working out when to give out data is very important. When it comes to pushing governments for data, do the low hanging fruit first. Are there privacy implications? Don’t do that stuff first. Do the low hanging fruit.”

One interesting note — especially given that the flagship was formally launched by Stephen Conroy prior to Berners-Lee’s keynote — was on government snooping and tracking as it relates to data:

I have a worry that a government is liable to take too much control; take away too much, maybe to spy, somebody to block; the act of releasing a set of blocked sites was interesting. Was that here? Beware of a government that has the ability to control what you see on the web. Imagine a government having that power; maybe you want to put something in the constitution.

On the proposal to track Australian Internet user data for two years:

I should say that it is important to fight organised crime; important to defend against cyber attacks. The dangers; if you do snoop on people, then you’re not going to get the criminals; they’ll use Tor, or intermediate nodes; they’ll open up VPNs. if you block VPNs, then you’re toast. Everybody needs them.

On one side the information won’t contain the info on serious criminals, only the people who’ve taken out too many library books. On the other side, this has data on web sites people have gone to; which cancers they’re concerned about. A teenager who needs to know about disease, sexuality, medicine, realises that if they click, they’ll be branded as having gone to that site; not being able to do that. Sometimes people share with the web; stuff they don’t share with nearest and dearest. That data is dynamite; what you’ve done is prepare a dossier on every person in the country. Something that dangerous, boy, do you have to have a government agency looking at the first agency to watch; the watchers and the watchers of the watchers. I’ve seen no government that’s done that, and no way to do that which isn’t fraught with the potential for corruption.

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