Sir Tim Berners-Lee Warns of Erosion of Web Freedoms

The founder of the World Wide Web warns that the Internet is becoming less free and more unequal.

By Tom Jowitt

The Web is becoming less free and more unequal, with computer users increasingly at risk of censorship, surveillance and cyber violence.

This is the stark warning issued in a new annual Web Index report from the World Wide Web (WWW) Foundation, which is controlled by the founder of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Unequal Web?

The Web is supposed to be an open and equal platform for all, but according to the new report, indiscriminate government censorship and surveillance are undermining these principles and are on the rise.

And Sir Berners-Lee called for the Internet to be recognized as a basic human right.

Sir Tim noted that in our increasingly unequal world, the Web has the potential to be a great equalizer, but only "if we hardwire the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, affordable access and net neutrality into the rules of the game."

Meanwhile, the annual Web Index said that almost 60 percent of the world's people (4.3 billion) cannot get online. It also warned that over half of those who can access the Web live in countries that severely restrict their rights online. The Index found that 84 percent of countries are adjudged to have weak or non-existent laws to protect citizens from indiscriminate mass surveillance, up from 63 percent in 2013.

Additionally, 38 percent of countries are now censoring politically or socially sensitive content to a "moderate or extensive" degree—an increase of 6 percent from 2013. In addition, only a quarter of the countries assessed this year effectively enforce clear rules to protect net neutrality.

And the Web Index revealed that rich countries tend to have low levels of inequality, and strong protection for civil liberties. Top-ranking countries here are Denmark, Finland and Norway. The United Kingdom is fourth, and Sweden is fifth. These countries are apparently gaining the most social and economic benefit from the Web.

The WWW Foundation wants countries to accelerate progress toward universal access by increasing access to affordable Internet. It wants to level the playing field by preventing price discrimination in Internet traffic, and treating the Internet like any other public utility.

It also wants investment in high-quality public education, the promotion of participation in democracy, and the creation of opportunities for women and poor, and to help marginalized groups overcome key barriers in health, education, agriculture and gender equity.

Web Freedom

Sir Tim has been an active campaigner for an open and equal Web and has been a frequent critic of government snooping.

In 2013, Sir Tim and the World Wide Web Foundation launched the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an organization that aims to lower the cost of broadband in the less connected parts of the world through increased competition.

In March this year, he called for an "open, neutral Internet" with its own bill of rights. Speaking 25 years to the day since he had submitted a paper outlining his ideas to superiors at CERN, Sir Tim said that the Web needed a "a global constitution" to ensure its users remain protected when using the service, particularly in the face of increased government snooping.

He reiterated this call in September, where he said that the United Kingdom needs to establish a set of definitive rules and regulations governing fair use of the Internet in order to ensure online privacy is protected.