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Web inventor Berners-Lee: I so did NOT see this cat vid thing coming

'A primarily neutral tool'

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Web @ 25 Sir Tim Berners-Lee has had a busy day of it. On the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (not the internet) he's launched a campaign for an internet bill of rights, has given plenty of interviews, and on Wednesday afternoon took to Reddit to take questions from the public.

"The web is a primarily neutral tool for humanity. When you look at humanity you see the good and the bad, the wonderful and the awful," he told Redditors. "A powerful tool can be used for good or ill. Things which are really bad are illegal on the web as they are off it. On balance, communication is good think I think: much of the badness comes from misunderstanding."

Sir Tim revealed that he had considered many names for the web, including the Mine of Information, The Information Mine, and The Mesh, before settling on World Wide Web because "I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples'"

He cited his parents as his greatest influence. The two met while building the Ferranti Mk 1, the world's first commercially available computer, and Sir Tim built his first system in 1976 out of parts he scavenged.

"I got a M6800 evaluation kit in 1976, and built a bunch of 3U high cards, put them in a rack with a car battery in the bottom of the crate as UPS," he said.

"All hand-soldered on veroboard, and programmed in hex. 7E XX XX was a long jump, and 20 XX a relative jump IIRC. The display was an old TV and some logic and a bunch of discarded calculator buttons lovingly relabeled with transfer letters. Those were the days."

Sir Tim took some flak from the Redditors (as he has from some in the industry) over his support for digital rights management in the HTML5 standard. But, he explained, DRM was needed in some circumstances to support high-value products.

Browser manufacturers have to build DRM in, he said, in order to compete. That said, copyright, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and US copyright laws are "seriously broken" he said, and need reform.

He also took time to clear up some of the myths about the web. The 404 page wasn't inspired by an office building he worked in that had no room 404 and, when asked why Robert Cailliau wasn't credited with co-creating the Web, Berners-Lee said this was because he hadn't.

"Robert didn't invent it. I invented it by myself, and coded it up on a NeXT, but Robert was the first convert to it, and a massive supporter," he explained.

"He got resources together at CERN, helped find students, gave talks. He also later wrote some code for a Mac browser called Samba. He also put a lot of energy into persuading the CERN directorate that CERN should declare that it would not charge royalties for the WWW, which it did in April 1993."

When it came to the dark web and its usefulness for selling dodgy products and services, Sir Tim said it was a complicated question society needs to sort out. Internet users should have the right to be anonymous in some circumstances, but not all he said.

As for Edward Snowden, Sir Tim said he supported the whistleblower's leaks because Snowden had no other choice and the result had been a net benefit for the web.

"I think he should be protected, and we should have ways of protecting people like him. Because we can try to design perfect systems of government, and they will never be perfect, and when they fail, then the whistleblower may be all that saves society," he said.

There had to be some monitoring of the web he said, so that the police could track down criminals. But this has to be backed up by proper and effective oversight and new checks and balances were needed to combat the "unprecedented power" the web had given intelligence agencies to surveil the populace.

Sir Tim said he was concerned with some of the direction the web was taking but ultimately it was down to users to make the rules that governed the online world. This involved making their feelings known to politicians and even taking to the streets, as protestors did against the proposed SOPA and PIPA laws.

"It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions ... we can chose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice," he said.

Finally, when asked what was popular online that he'd never imagined would be a hit, Sir Tim answered "kittens." He said he hadn’t posted up any pictures of cats himself, but had sent a picture of his dog online. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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