Sundance festivalgoers on the lookout for famous celebrities this week most likely had zero idea that the cheerful Brit walking down Main Street on Monday was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the tech pioneer who was knighted for shaping the way we live and breathe online. Quite modest and unassuming, he’s the guy who built the very first Web browser in 1989 and made http://, a thing that people see all day, every day, even if they don’t know what the heck it means.
Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, watched sympathetically as I sank into an awkwardly angled basket chair inside a lounge hosted by crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The setting was appropriate, seeing as what inspired Berners-Lee to create the Web in the first place back in 1989 was a desire to facilitate connections—which he’s now helped billions of people do.
That initial intention is one of the topics of ForEveryone.net, a short film from Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal, Ping Pong Player). Backed by the Ford Foundation, the documentary traces Berners-Lee’s little-known origin tale and the present-day issues that persist in the digital age—namely, net neutrality and the elusive promise of a truly free Internet.
“We should be able to use the Web without worrying about being spied on and without finding that you can’t get to places because the ISP you use has got a deal with somebody else,“ said Berners-Lee.
“The incentive whether you’re a government or a company to mess up net neutrality is control—for example, if you’re an oppressive government and you control the Internet, you can use it in all kinds of nasty ways.”
Using rising country China as an example, he noted that progress comes in different shapes and sizes. “If you look at the world through blurry spectacles, you see a slow and uneven march towards more openness,” Berners-Lee said. “It’s true that when you go to China you can’t get to YouTube, but you can get to Vimeo. You can’t get to Twitter, but you can get to lots of other sites.”
China charts on the Web index “not because they have an excellent record when it comes to censorship, but because they have a massive amount of stuff happening there—a huge amount of e-commerce, a huge amount of social chat,” he explained. “They’re using the Internet and it’s having a big positive economic effect.”
“I hope that what will happen, bit by bit, is each country realizes it needs to play a part, just from a purely economic point of view,” he continued. “Companies have to be able to see and understand what the outside world is like, and the outside world has to be able to understand what China is like.”
The broad strokes of net neutrality arise in ForEveryone.Net, which hopes to put a friendly face on the fight for a free Web. That’s why Berners-Lee and Yu came to Sundance, where they premiered the film on Monday.
There are, of course, other issues in our daily digital lives. “I’m very aware of people who’ve been bullied on the Internet,” he said. “Typically women. I’m aware of the instructions you can find to do nasty things out there. [But] whenever you see humanity fairly unfiltered, humanity as you know has its dark parts but also its wonderful parts.”
I ask if Berners-Lee considers himself an optimist or a pessimist these days, seeing how his humble creation has become one of the most wonderful and frightening developments to happen to modern humans.
He paused, carefully considering it. “I’m optimistic about humanity,” he said.” “I think the energy that people have pushing it in a good direction will overcome the negative effort that’s put in. If you look at the course of history, the path of civilization has been positive. It has been toward greater democracy, greater scientific knowledge, but it’s also been very rocky. It hasn’t been a straight through path, and there have been a lot of disasters along the way.”
“I think when it comes to whether we as humanity in the end can keep it open, establish it very firmly as something which will be open and have the freedom that it has forever… I am not sure, because there are a lot of forces the other way.”
It’s been almost a year since the FCC reclassified broadband access as net neutrality thanks to a campaign waged with “people power.” Berners-Lee politely begs off of touching the 2016 election and which politicians pose the biggest threats and allies to the cause.
“I suppose it’s another form of neutrality,” he joked. “The reason is that net neutrality and the issues in the film are actually completely nonpolitical. You find people on both sides of the aisle—in different countries they have different aisles and different political systems. People from every shape and form realize the importance of net neutrality, so it’s really important to leave it out there as an issue for everybody to claim support for and promote, whichever side of the aisle they’re on.”
A lot’s changed since the early days of the World Wide Web. The Internet has expanded exponentially, but along with the growth and wonderment comes those scary corners of the Net.
He shrugs when I ask if the dark Web worries him. “Badness frightens me, goodness thrills me,” he said. “I think to a certain extent, when you first look at the Web simplistically you feel, well, the Internet surely should be that sort of thing that is equally usable for anybody. I think that’s a bit naïve.”
He says he advises tech creators to think about the impact of their web design—even something so simple as how a “Like” button functions.
“Does it encourage people to be constructive, or does it encourage people to be destructive? Does it tend to amplify negative emotion more than it does positive emotion? The way we build websites can have an effect. Some of the most interesting work being done is to try and understand that. Lots of people build new social media websites, I say to them: Try to think about whether it will be one which will be a positive force for harmony in the world.”
I ask Berners-Lee to ponder the ambiguous line danced by hacker group Anonymous. “There’s a conflict between my right to be anonymous as a whistleblower and my right to reveal you, person who is bullying me and making my life intolerable by saying untruths about me,” he said.
“The right to be anonymous, to start with, then, is something which you have to settle in court. It’s a place where you need balance and a civilized process.”
Anonymous, the group, is “another article,” he smiles, firmly. “We don’t have time.”