Please go away, Tim Berners-Lee

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.

update, 849 days later

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.