BRITAIN: 'On the Internet, guard your personal space'

Services that track consumer information are a "serious breach of privacy," says Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee

The Times of India
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

LONDON --- Beware indiscretion on the Internet, the father of the world wide web has cautioned, in a reminder that his brainchild has become one of the biggest, most permanent data 'archives' in human history.

Nearly two decades after inventing the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee stepped into the frenzied debate over Internet privacy with a warning to surfers to jealously guard their personal space with one eye on the future.

Berners-Lee has long admitted that he never realized the potential and scale of his invention when he thought up a project based on the concept of hypertext to facilitate information-sharing among researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest particle physics laboratory known as CERN.

But on Monday, he cautioned the world's multiplying millions of surfers on its destructive potential in the future. Personal data, he said, was precious and deeply personal and should never be put on websites, not least social networking ones.

Surfers should think of their future grandchildren reading the archived data, he said, in a reminder that Internet has a longevity that goes beyond inscriptions on stone tablets, rock etchings and papyrus. "Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it's all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well."

Berners-Lee's comments are seen to underline increasingly acute anxiety about individual privacy in so public a space as the world wide web. Already, popular social networking sites have recorded their first fall in new and continuous users in their second-most popular base, the UK, as surfers grapple with issues of privacy and data retention.

Berners-Lee compounded his warning on the perils of the Internet with an indictment of its creeping commercialisation by big businesses, who snoop on surfers.

Striking a blow for net neutrality, he said consumers needed to be protected against systems which can track their surfing activity. Describing ongoing controversial moves to institutionalise and legitimise tracking services, he said his data and web history belonged to him.

"It's mine -- you can't have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I'm getting in return."

Internet service providers, he said, were supposed to supply a neutral service just like water companies supply water to a property.

Berners-Lee's opposition to web tracking comes amid plans by some of UK's leading Internet providers to use Phorm, a tracking company to create personalised adverts.

But the father of the web said this constituted a serious breach of privacy and raised the spectre of a web-based big brother watching all of us, at our peril. Surfers who visit sites about cancer could find their health insurance premiums going up because of some deduced ill-health, he warned.

Phase two of the web, said Berners-Lee, would include guidance of its future because there are more web pages now than neurons in the human brain, yet the shape and growth of the web were still not properly understood.

"We should look out for snags in the future," Berners-Lee said of his creation, pointing to spam email as an example of things going wrong. "Things can change so fast on the Internet."