What does Tim think?

According to reports from BBC and The Guardian, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee thinks his baby’s in danger. BBC News:

He told the BBC: “If we don’t have the ability to understand the web as it’s now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad.

“Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web.

“Studying these forces and the way they’re affected by the underlying technology is one of the things that we think is really important,” he said.

And The Guardian:

The creator of the world wide web told the Guardian last night that the internet is in danger of being corrupted by fraudsters, liars and cheats. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Briton who founded the web in the early 1990s, says that if the internet is left to develop unchecked, “bad phenomena” will erode its usefulness.

His creation has transformed the way millions of people work, do business, and entertain themselves.

But he warns that “there is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way”. He singles out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continuing development of the web, because of the risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and uncheckable information.

But Tim says he was misquoted both times, and the web is really in fine shape:

A great example of course is the blogging world. Blogs provide a gently evolving network of pointers of interest. As do FOAF files. I’ve always thought that FOAF could be extended to provide a trust infrastructure for (e..g.) spam filtering and OpenID-style single sign-on and its good to see things happening in that space.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, alas, my attempt to explain this was turned upside down into a “blogging is one of the biggest perils” message. Sigh. I think they took their lead from an unfortunate BBC article, which for some reason stressed concerns about the web rather than excitement, failure modes rather than opportunities. (This happens, because when you launch a Web Science Research Initiative, people ask what the opportunities are and what the dangers are for the future. And some editors are tempted to just edit out the opportunities and headline the fears to get the eyeballs, which is old and boring newspaper practice. We expect better from the Guardian and BBC, generally very reputable sources)

So what’s going on here, was the venerable scientist misquoted by a sensationalist press? I think not, as both BBC and The Guardian are well known for the sobriety of their analysis of technical subjects. At this stage in his career, Berners-Lee is more a politician than a scientist, and he needs to learn the politician’s skill of talking to journalists so they can understand what, if anything, he thinks. He tends to speak out both sides of his mouth, as he’s done on network neutrality. He claims to support the principle while endorsing commercial arrangements that happen to be forbidden by proposed neutrality laws, and that’s hard to dance around.

The web, like any number of things, is a mixture of good and bad, and the challenge is always to maximize the one while minimizing the other. That’s not too hard to express, is it?