22 Nov 2013

Berners-Lee on spying, security and Snowden

The inventor of the world wide web talks surveillance, accountability and the future of the internet with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, saying government agencies need to “renegotiate trust” with the public.

He invented the web back in 1990, on Christmas day. And it has developed in a way no-one could have anticipated.

After this year’s revelations about the extent of UK and US state surveillance, Sir Tim Berners-Lee says he is concerned that government spying is threatening democracy as we know it.

In a wide-ranging interview with Channel 4 News, Sir Tim said that recent revelations showed that our system of accountability had broken down, and that a new system of checks and balances was needed to guard the independence of the internet – and to make people feel secure about their data.

“For the agency that is doing it (spying), we need to have another agency that is watching it,” he said, adding that this agency needed to be “powerful, able to be investigative, independent – and accountable”.

Launching his annual report on international internet freedom, which sorts countries into a league table, Berners-Lee warned against a “growing tide of surveillance and censorship”.

He told Channel 4 News: “the security services are there to do a very difficult job, with a lot of trust from the people. They just need to renegotiate that trust.”

The Web Index report concludes that only five of the 81 countries in the index properly monitor government interception of electronic communications. Moderate to extensive blocking or filtering of politically sensitive content was reported in over 30 per cent of web index countries during the past year, the report also finds.

The report also found that web and social media were “leading to real-world change“: in 80 per cent of the countries studied, they had played a role in public mobilisation in the past year, and in half of these cases, the web and social media been a major catalyst.

US and UK governments have both condemned Edward Snowden for releasing classified information about the scale of government surveillance. They claimed he put national security at risk, by leaking information to the media.

But Sir Tim told Channel 4 News that Mr Snowden should be considered a whistleblower, rather than traitor:

“When the systems of checks and balances in government are broken… that’s the only thing that society as we know it, has to hang on to – the fact that someone may well do the whistleblower thing. So we have to protect him, I think.”

Sir Tim also told Channel 4 News that the use of encryption as a result of mass surveillance was likely to spread, but he said that releasing information on the internet was often hugely beneficial:

“What we have to stop is that as life gets quite nice, and powerful for the individual, that that information’s not used to hurt me – to discriminate against me.”