Why Sir Tim Berners-Lee is frightened of the 'right to be forgotten'

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 7, 2014
A quarter of a century after creating the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has strong views on the nature of data sharing and the controversial right to be forgotten.

While the European Commission is hellbent on enforcing the controversial ‘right to be forgotten’, the idea has come under fire from no less a person than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web.

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Speaking at the IP Expo conference in London today, Berners-Lee told diginomica that he had grave concerns about the implications of the ruling by the European Court of Justice which allows European citizens to demand that unfavorable references to them are removed from search engines, such as Google.

The entries are removed in Europe, but not in other parts of the world, so the censorship aspects of this can be manouevered around simply by using google.com rather than a European instance. Nonetheless Berners-Lee is unimpressed:

The right to be forgotten seems draconian when it’s about removing information that is true. The idea that information which is true can be removed from public record is frightening. A lot of the stuff that the media writes up today will be 404-ed in a few years!

Of course if something's untrue, you have a right to have it taken down.

I live half the time in Europe and half in the US and the right to be forgotten is seen very differently on the two sides. Freedom of speech is fundamentally part of the US Consitution. The idea that you could stop someone saying something true is just anathema.

If something is not true, then it’s right for it to be taken down. We’ve got libel and slander [laws] already there. In the middle you have the situation where something’s true, but someone would like it to be water under the bridge.

He’s also got some clear concerns about the current push by the Commission towards promoting a far tougher data protection regime and expecting the US to fall in line with it:

On data protection, I would prefer the US to have stronger data protection so Europe can be a good influence in that way. But it is very easy for the Commission to put in place a rule that makes it impossible to start a social network in Europe. I don’t like the idea of nation silo-ing. It would be bad if you have to store data about a person of a certain neationality in a certain country.

None of this is to say that Berners-Lee does not respect the need for digital privacy. In fact, he becomes positively animated when discussing this subject:

Privacy is important too. There are people who say 'privacy is dead, get over it' - but I don't agree with that.

We function by having a 'data wall' around us. There fact that you can have a discussion, for instance, that doesn't leave your family, that's the only way that family works."

The idea that privacy is dead is hopelessly sad. we have to build systems that allow for privacy.

My data

There needs to be more concerted effort to change people’s attitudes towards information sharing in order to maximise the potential of Big and Open Data initiatives, he believes:

Where places have an open data infrastructure, everything's easier. When companies own the data they hold, and others can't build apps on it that's bad.

Don't give me a nice website with visualisations of your data. Give me the raw data, so I can merge it with what I want, so I can find out what that data looks like next to this data. That's open data!

Some people think [Open Data] is about [politicians] expenses and being publicly open - but it's more important than that. It's the economy of big data.

It’s also about the individual, he adds:

The real value of your data is to yourself.

I don't want companies to use medical data, for instance, to sell me insurance premiums - but if I'm in a car accident, I want my doctor to be able to access any data he needs instantly."

If you give people an understanding of how their data is being used, they're much more open to allowing people to use it.

This is the way ahead for business, he argues:

By opening up the data Kimono, by agreeing to share your data - not publicly, but as part of partnerships - that's where the future is."

When people talk about big data, they tend to think about size. And that's interesting, but the key thing I think is what I call rich data. It's not that there's a lot of it, it's that there's all kinds of data and it's mixed up."

We need to build systems that are devastatingly powerful, but can handle this rich aspect of data.

Inevitably Berners-Lee also has firm views on the vexed subject of net neutrality, something which leads him to conclude that even the darker aspects of his creation are worth having:

The reason I could take something called the World Wide Web and let it loose on an unsuspecting Internet was due to the fact that it was an open network.

I didn't have to worry about how the Internet worked, and the Internet didn't have to worry much about me either.

That's why we have to keep fighting for Net Neutrality.

When you look at humanity, there's a dark side. Still people are doing nasty things to each other. It's amazing after all this time, but the Web is a vehicle. It's like a white sheet of paper.

It would be terrible if we only had a 'nice web' where you could only write nice things or do nice things. It'd be like paper you can only write cheques on. The medium has to be neutral.

My take

A man made of ideas.

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