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Sir Tim Berners-Lee on future of mobile, net neutrality and privacy

Anyone with some web pedigree will know who Sir Tim Berners-Lee is. He’s a computer scientist and MIT professor credited with inventing the World Wide Web, making the first proposal for it way back in 1989.

He’s also a director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an absolutely critical body that oversees standards and the internet’s overall development.

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At the Nokia World Forum in London on Thursday, Berners-Lee spoke about mobile innovation, calling location-based services on mobile phones “just the tip of the iceberg”.

Surprisingly, it was a somewhat unstructured talk that rambled a bit from a man world-famous for his work on the net. Berners-Lee is not a natural speaker and his poor, mumbled delivery did not do justice to the important ideas he shared with the audience gathered at the Nokia-hosted event.

Here are a few key points:

Mobile devices get to know us
Berners-Lee envisages a time in the future where that thing in our pockets knows all about us. They become sensing devices. Our phones will not only know our location, but would have sensors that could detect our emotions, for example by monitoring our heart rate, gleaning medical information from our bodies, and even detecting if we were on a bumpy ride or not (presumably from a sensitive accelerometer). He looks forward to the day where the internet, powered by the mobile phone, is truly integrated with our lives.

Data is key
We spend most of our time on the web at a surface level, but what about the underlying data? Web services have flourished on a good data base. Using protocols like Linked Data and SPARQL, the web is transforming from a “single bus system” into a “double bus system”. Berners-Lee believes the next stage of the internet’s growth will come from putting raw data online to help the developer community create applications and programs: “We now need to get more data on the web”.

HTML 5 and scalable vector graphics
The web is set to becoming an increasingly powerful and beautiful space with HTML 5, and now with the increasing adoption of scalable vector graphics — now finally being adopted by the world’s leading browsers.

Privacy and accountability
Privacy issues are not just about social networks, but what all companies and governments do with our private and public information. Context is key. We share information in different contexts and for different reasons: Information shared at an office party would be very different from that you shared in the office. We need to develop systems that make companies more accountable and respectful of users’ information. Users need to understand why and in what context their personal data will be used by third-party applications.

“Sometimes users don’t realise what information they are giving away, and it’s all about reaching a balance between how many hoops we want users to go through to ensure they realise what data about themselves they are revealing,” he said.

Neutrality of the net
This is what makes the internet work — it’s what makes the internet an entrepreneurial medium of equal opportunity. To be on the web you don’t need to register with an organisation or get permission. Berners-Lee reminds us that there are companies and governments who would love to control aspects of the web. For example, some companies would love to block or “slow down” voice over IP if it gave them a competitive advantage.

“There are lots of businesses out there that would like to make their sites load faster than rivals’, or governments that would love to be able to restrict or slow down access to certain sites for political reasons, but the moment you let go of net neutrality you lose the web as it is,” he said.

We think of the web as a global medium, yet just 20% of the world is on the web. What about the other 80%? It’s not a signal problem, because thanks to mobile telephony most of the world is near a landline or cellphone tower. It’s not a device cost issue, because we’re at a point where a 10$ phone now has a mobile browser.

Berners-Lee sees it as a data pricing issue — and urged mobile phone operators to include low-bandwidth data plans on every mobile phone package to allow people in developing-world countries access to the internet.

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