Tim Berners-Lee: people would go to prison rather than lose internet

24 Apr 2012

Inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee

The inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee said people were absolutely right to take to the streets to protest SOPA, PIPA and ACTA and said disconnecting a family’s internet service in today’s world deprives people of their ability to communicate. He said people would likely choose prison than lose their internet connections.

Ironically, he was speaking in a country that recently signed into law a contentious statutory instrument that provides court judges with the power to potentially deprive users of their internet access in copyright cases. Berners-Lee was in Dublin today to keynote the 2012 Teradata Universe Conference at the National Convention Centre.

In the US, widespread protests against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy) and its sister act PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property) shocked politicians into rethinking the controversial proposed legislation. When thousands signed petitions across Europe after politicians signed ACTA (Anti-Copyright Trade Agreement) without any consultation, the European Commission took note and referred the matter to the European Court of Justice. But when 75,000 people in Ireland protested the statutory instrument, the politicians signed the law anyway.

Open data but protect privacy

Berners-Lee, who also directs the UK’s Data.gov.uk project to open up official data for public use, was strident in his views that governments and enterprises should look to releasing data sets for the public good and to enable better business opportunities. Claims by government bodies that the quality of the data isn’t good enough is a standard delaying tactic, he warned.

He was equally strident that privacy, anonymity and human rights must also be respected by governments as they patrol the internet to combat terrorism or pedophiles’ activities.

Speaking with journalists today, he said public and private organisations can release open data sets without compromising individuals’ privacy or anonymity or revealing other sensitive information.

For example, datasets in healthcare can be analysed without revealing personal information or “violating patient rights.” He said providing some of the pieces of the jigsaw should be enough to allow people to develop the full picture, for example, analysing heart disease or cancer cases in a district and linking such datasets with genomic datasets.

He said data licences that safeguard privacy are essential. “But if you start doing things to de-anonymise the data, that’s not good.”

Government internet censorship

He said he has nothing against government monitoring of internet data as long as privacy is respected. “In general, we have to make sure that governments are not spying on the the internet except for serious issues, like terrorism.

“In my book, a child stealing a song is not a serious organised crime, governments should be focusing on terrorism, serious fraud and other serious crimes.

“Governments must remember that where data is stored it is like dynamite, it can reveal intimate details about individuals, could be used to blackmail and lead to coercion.”

He said we need to avoid situations like the Middle East and China, where government snooping on internet use leads to incarceration.

In relation to pressure from the recording industry and Hollywood in the US and UK to create laws that deprive users of their internet access and France where HADOPI legislation allows for three-strikes rules, Berners-Lee said he disapproved of over-zealous laws.

“Disconnecting an entire family from the internet and making them lose their internet service, I think, is more than censorship – that is actually depriving somebody of their ability to communicate.

“In fact, if you offer people a choice between going to prison but having access to the internet and being at home without access to the internet, they will choose the prison option.

“It’s a serious loss of liberty if you take away someone’s internet access.

“People should write to their MPs or politicians and sign petitions.

In the US, with SOPA and PIPA, people saw these laws as an attack on their rights and there was such an uproar and lawmakers hadn’t seen anything like it.

“Get out there. With ACTA in Europe, which was done without consulting a lot of people, people took to the streets and jumped up and down and protested,” Berners-Lee said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years