Few would argue that the Internet is the most powerful form of communication today.
The Web has changed the face of commerce, human interaction, and placed an enormous bank of information at the fingertips of its users.
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But ways in which it has revolutionised the lives of so many people has likewise had a paradoxical effect of engendering a growing global divide between those with Internet – who tend to be affluent, white, and urban – and those without.
Today, roughly two-thirds of the world’s population is without Internet. In Africa, that percentage plummets to 15, with only 7 percent of the population subscribing for regular use.
Tim Berners-Lee – the man who invented the World Wide Web, the service that unleashed the potential of the Internet for the world – is at the forefront of addressing the gap between the wired and unwired.
In 2009, he established the World Wide Web Foundation (WF), a non-profit that starts with the idea of Web access as a global basic right and aims to facilitate its penetration into unwired regions.
Al Jazeera’s Sophie Sportiche catches up with Berners-Lee on Skype to discuss the future of connectivity, and its potential impact for those across the globe who continue to be without access.
Sophie Sportiche: Why did you decide to found WF?
Tim Berners-Lee: Let’s go back to 1989. It’s very difficult to explain to young people nowadays what it was like before the Web. Back in 1989, I was writing a memo about how the world could be different. At the same, people would prepare documents on computers. And even though those computers were actually connected to a network, when they were ready, they would print them off and pass them around. There was also email, but there was no space for information … I worked at the time at a physics lab in Geneva, which was a great place to be because everybody had the sort of cutting edge workstation on their desk. Most people at that point didn’t have computers in their office.
I realised there was no reason why we had to do all this. Why did we have to print something out, and then go and find each other to exchange a piece of paper?
So I wrote a memo in 1989, and wrote the code a year and half later in 1990 on the first Web browser and server. Then, we wanted to make sure that all the people who have written software – people who have made new Web browsers and made new Web service software – used the same standards so that any Web browser could talk to any Web server. To do that, I started the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is where all these people come together.
At this consortium, a few us looked at each other and said, “You know what would make the Web more powerful? Ah, actually it is only being used by 20 percent of humanity!” And we’d never thought we’d be used by 20 percent of humanity – it would have seemed ridiculous. But so we thought, “Yes, how can we make it more exciting and powerful for the 20 percent that are using it, but in doing that we’re actually adding to the gap, we’re actually making the gap between the people that have Internet and those who don’t bigger. So shouldn’t we also do something to address the other 80 percent?”
SS: For the remaining of the 80 percent who don’t have Internet, when do they gain access, what will have the greatest impact on their lives?
TBL: You hear many stories about people talking about how this or that is the killer application … But there isn’t just one particular application that people are going to use. They will use it for all sorts of things that help their daily lives, like work, play, and running their businesses.
Personally, I think health information is something that is really exciting, because if you’re distributing clean water or if you’re distributing drugs, then there’s just a certain amount of clean water. Information, however, has this explosive quality: If I get information that I download on the Internet, then I still have it when I give it away. That way, important information about health care, like HIV/AIDS, or information about being careful about fake drugs, can spread if you’ve got the information infrastructure in place. Getting the information infrastructure in place is enabling in a way that nothing else is.
SS: What role does getting Internet infrastructure play in this equation then – is it the biggest obstacle to getting Internet to remote places?
TBL: What we get from working on these different projects is figuring out the different questions. Is there in the village a phone capable of accessing the Web? Do you need to have one yourself or is it fine if one person in the village has one? Then there’s the question of how fast the price of smart phones can come down. There’s also the connectivity itself.
But I think on the other hand, when you look at all the English-speaking countries, there is already a huge mass of material on the Web already so they have an even greater incentive to get on there. But if your mother-tongue happens to be spoken by relatively few people, it’s more of a hurdle. Even though the Web is somewhere where people should be writing as well as reading; somewhere they should be being creative and putting their music, songs, and their knowledge out there – local knowledge about medicine, local knowledge about agriculture.
SS: WF is partnering with Al Jazeera to reach out to people with mobile voice browsing platforms in Africa where mobile penetration, at about 77 percent, is much higher than Internet penetration. Even when people don’t have access to smart phones necessarily, many do have access to mobiles. To what extent can the two platforms hinder or enable each other?
TBL: The development of Internet is natural. Mobile by itself doesn’t give you access to the Web of information, but giving people access to information allows people to ask questions and explore what’s out there just by using voice interfaces. I think it’s interesting for two reasons: one, many people with phones don’t have data access and they don’t have smart phones. These people are on a basic Nokia phone – a basic brick phone – and all they have is a voice phone plan.
Another thing is that literacy in some areas is a critical factor. Here, we’re trying to get computers to converse with the person. To a certain extent, we’re getting smarter at this, and we’re pushing the bounds of what the computer can do in order to accommodate people. How smart can we get the computer to be about really understanding what the person needs, and having the person understand what’s going to be available? We have to then put them together so that given the constraints of the current technology – such as if you just have a simple phone – people can be enabled to have access.
I don’t think this will at all reduce the rate at which people get online with the full Internet connection. I think it will whet their appetite and give them a sense of what’s out there and what they can be a part of. Effective use of technology is an economic benefit. It allows you to run your farm more effectively, or it allows you to sell your products more effectively. It cuts out the middleman and makes everything more efficient. So that brings more money in and will raise the whole level, while allowing people to invest in more things.
SS: There has been a lot of hype how Africa is opening up to technological investment at an astounding rate, but the excitement voiced by one side has also been greeted by the scepticism of other critics on the possibility of seeing a fully wired Africa in the near future. What’s your take on this, and what kind of time frame might we be looking at?
TBL: Two things: One is that the technology already existing in Africa is exciting. When we were driving across Uganda, there was signal everywhere – even in remote parts of Rwanda and Uganda. I found it amazing where you have cell signal [in those countries]. In a certain way, Africa could overtake [the United States], because [the US] has this very large space of rather uninhabited rural areas which it has not connected. Americans have broadband to about 75 percent, Britain 85, and Iceland 95 at the top. But with mobile broadband [Africa could leapfrog] because there’s cable and many of these countries have mobile communications already. It’s just a question of upgrading to faster speed and people getting the gadgets.
You have to then look at a fairness question. Can the government manage it so that as the country comes online, it’s not just happening in the centres and big cities but also in the areas that are not very privileged? …
What the British government is now doing is trying so that everyone has [Internet] so that it can put all your government services online, which saves a huge amount money. It’s also a big payback for industry if you can distribute information about products and the country then works online.
[But] you don’t want to exclude anyone from e-government. And you’ll also get people participating in decisions and understanding what’s going on at the local government level.
I do think because of that there will be large areas of people who are not connected for a long time, but the rate is still going to shoot up.
SS: Are you concerned about the potential for government abuse as these countries come online in terms of censorship and trying to control access to different content?
TBL: The simple rule for governments for the Internet is no spying and no blocking. Yes, there are a lot of governments that spy on people and block, but it’s a sign of strength for a government to show to what extent it can allow free speech.
It is one of the huge issues now in the world as regimes are changing … There are massive questions about to what extent can you move to a more open space. Can [the government allow itself] to become more vulnerable by allowing more free speech without exposing [itself] and creating too much instability?
Key things for government are to allow people to be using the Internet without someone looking over their shoulder and arresting them when they search on websites, because that’s how we use it. We use the Internet in very intimate ways, talking to people we love and care about, and we have to protect that discussion between people from government instruction.
ME: Is there anything that we, as journalists and people connected to the Internet outside of these places without access, can do?
TBL: What you can do is demand openness of governments. Just as a good government will allow free speech, a good government will put its budgets and explain when it’s got money by putting them on the Web. Even when it gives money to a department, the department will say “Ok, we’ve got X amount of money to do X on this date, and this is how we are going to spend it. And this is how we did spend it.” Permitting that ethos to permeate – with people being open with what, when, and how – is really important.