Count me among those who had hoped that when Tim Berners-Lee appeared in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London, it would be a victory lap just before riding off into the sunset.
No such luck. At the ceremony, Berners-Lee typed the words “this is for everyone”, but he’s always had a strangely monarchic view of his own role. He even considered naming his invention “TIM” (ostensibly an acronym for “The Information Mine”) before mercifully settling on the less solipsistic “World Wide Web”. In 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (= W3C) and became its director, a position he has held since.
Originally, Berners-Lee held out the W3C as the United Nations of the web: a neutral forum where web stakeholders could hash out issues of common interest, for instance how technical standards like HTML and CSS and SVG should work. In so doing, the W3C wanted to make information “available to as wide a population of the world as possible”. A noble pursuit.
But as the web matured commercially, companies that controlled the flow of information over the web—especially makers of web browsers—came to have an outsize influence at the W3C. Why? Because these companies had plenty of cash to pay the (substantial) dues, and plenty of people to pack onto the committees that approved the standards. And if these companies didn’t adhere to the standards they helped make, oh well—there were never any consequences for undermining the W3C.
Arguably, this process of regulatory capture reached its nadir with Embedded Media Extensions, a DRM proposal pushed through the W3C by Google, Netflix, and Microsoft. Many—including the EFF, who resigned from the W3C in protest—consider DRM antithetical to the W3C’s founding principle of open access to information.
Whether you think the W3C’s moral drift over 25 years is good, bad, or merely inevitable, one point is beyond dispute: that it happened under the reign of Berners-Lee.
So it’s flabbergasting to now see Berners-Lee in the New York Times sidestepping any accountability, and instead promoting himself as the restorer of the web’s virtue. Berners-Lee is pushing what he calls the Contract for the Web, which he describes, with no irony, as a “global plan of action … to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely for everyone.” He assures us that “the tech giants Google, Facebook, [and] Microsoft” are all “committing to action.” What a relief! Berners-Lee still seems to think Big Tech can do no wrong, even at a time when public and political opinion are going the opposite direction.
In 2013 I gave a talk where I warned that we had “traded good government for banner ads”—apologies for how true that turned out to be. But as part of the solution, I suggested that the W3C be disbanded. Not only was it obsolete, but its existence was an obstacle to creating something better.
Six years later, I would settle for Berners-Lee retiring and freeing us from his seemingly endless appetite for Tim-splaining the web. Mr. Berners-Lee, after 30 years, we thank you for the things you got right; we forgive you for the things you got wrong. But if the web is really “for everyone”, then it’s long outgrown your mother-knows-best myopia. So please, with affection and gratitude: go away. Even Dio had to pass the torch.
Berners-Lee has not gone away. Though his Contract for the Web withered. More recently, he founded a startup with some murky purpose around online privacy. In the past two years, however, the cryptocurrency and metaverse fanatics have dominated the conversation about where the web goes next.