Sir Tim Berners-Lee: the quiet guru who invented the world wide web

He is the man who has changed the world more than anyone else in the past hundred years.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee may be a mild-mannered academic who lives modestly in Boston, but as the inventor of the world wide web he is also a revolutionary. Along with Galileo, William Caxton and Sir Isaac Newton, he is a scientist who has altered the way people think as well as the way they live.

Since the web went global 20 years ago, the way we shop, listen to music and communicate has been transformed. There are implications for politics, literature, economics — even terrorism — because an individual can now have the same access to information as the elite. Society will never be the same.

The computer scientist from Oxford, who built his own computer from a television screen and spare parts after he was banned from one of the university computers, is a cultural guru as much as a technological one.

“It is amazing how far we’ve come,” he says. “But you’re always wondering what’s the next crazy idea, and working to make sure the web stays one web and that the internet stays open. There isn’t much time to sit back and reflect.”

We speak for more than an hour about everything from Facebook to fatwas, Wikipedia to Google. He invented the web, he says, because he was frustrated that he couldn’t find all the information he wanted in one place. It was an imaginary concept that he realised.

The world, he believes, is still slowly coming to terms with the implications of his creation and the “wisdom of crowds” is trumping directives from on high. “This is a time of tremendous experimentation to find new social systems to answer those questions — the ‘What do we believe?’ question and the ‘What do we do?’ question. The ‘What do we believe?’ lead to science, the ‘What do we do?’ questions lead to democracy.”

Getting government to open their data is Sir Tim’s newest effort. He is advising Gordon Brown on opening up Whitehall. “I had lunch at Chequers and Gordon Brown said to me, ‘What should we be doing with the internet?’ And I said, ‘Well, put the government data on the web’. He said, ‘OK, let’s do it’. The result has been a wave of data about the state of Britain and how it works.”

On Monday Mr Brown will set out plans to transform the relationship between citizen and State. There is, according to Sir Tim, a revolution under way in the corridors of power. Already 3,000 sets of previously unavailable government data have been put online on subjects such as crime, pregnancy and carbon emissions.

Companies and individuals are springing up to “mash up” the data, creating applications that tell you, for example, how many bicycle accidents happen every month on your route to work. The presumption, says Sir Tim, is that not everything should be released.

“Some things are off limits — security-sensitive files and minutes of Cabinet meetings. We’re not involving any information about individual people. Tax returns are private but information about the typical tax that people pay in a typical town — that can help people make decisions.”

The next step is to deliver government services online. The barriers between public and private deliverers will increasingly be broken down. The Cabinet Office is working on plans to allow people to buy their car tax discs from Amazon as well as order prescriptions and apply for benefits online.

“I don’t want to go to a government office to do a government thing, it should all be online,” says Sir Tim. “That saves time for people and it saves money for the Government. There will come a point where you don’t need all the physical offices any more.”

A report by the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the Government could save £900 million a year simply by bringing online those who don’t have access to the internet. The total savings could be far bigger if all government services were accessed by computer. Jobcentres, passport offices, housing benefit offices and DVLA centres would all be phased out, replaced by a small “digital support” office in each area. Thousands of bureaucrats would lose their jobs. “The whole process of government could be so much more efficient if everything was done online,” Sir Tim says.

How far could it go? Will doctors be encouraged to give online consultations? Could schools be shut down in favour of “virtual learning facilities”? The internet guru says there are possibilities throughout the public services. “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology [where he is a professor] releases all course work online, and others use it to teach courses all over the world. But children do need human contact as well. There’s a huge benefit in being with a teacher who can explain things.”

The really interesting question is to what extent the internet is changing society. “It’s important to have real relationships,” Sir Tim says. “Most people have several groups of friends. But the web allows you to be part of a group that is not geographically close — you can talk to somebody in a tiny village on the other side of the world, where they have a different culture, and find you have something in common. I think that’s a good thing, it promotes human understanding, it encourages world peace.”

Does he think the internet is rewiring children’s brains? “I don’t think we know yet,” he replies. “Finding the answer to a question like that is not simple, you have to do huge experiments, you have to follow people for a long time.

“And you can’t just think about computer sciences, you need a psychologist to do an analysis of the child, you need sociologists to look at the types of culture that is being produced, then you need a philosopher to ask whether that is a good thing.”

His daughter was born in the same year as the internet. As a parent is he worried about the influence of the internet, with children stumbling across online porn and being murdered by paedophiles they meet on Facebook?

“As a father I’ve felt that it has been a positive thing,” he insists. “Personally I make sure that they use it in a room where there is an adult so you can gently track what’s going on. Children should be taught how to be anonymous online, how not to get involved in relationships that they could regret.

“Obviously when they’re young you have to put limits on the amount of time they spend on a computer but the aim should be to make them responsible. My instinct has been to give them that choice at an early age. They realise quite quickly that there is a detrimental effect on their homework if they spend too much time online.”

The internet is an extraordinary resource, but it also leads to a cacophony of information. “Too many people forget that just because you can read anything it doesn’t mean you have to read everything,” Sir Tim says. “The web is one great big system of peer review, we are all acting as part of a big web of humanity all working collectively on the task of figuring out which pages are good to read.”

Some sites, though, are more sinister. Does he worry that child pornography and bomb recipes are just a few clicks away, thanks to his invention?

“Child pornography is illegal whether it’s on or off the internet. The web is a very powerful tool and it can be used for good or evil. Nuclear power can be used to make a nuclear bomb.

“I don’t feel responsible for the fact that terrorists as well as doctors use the world wide web because the world has terrorists as well as doctors. It’s not the role of the web to make a world in which there are doctors but not terrorists. That’s the role of armies and governments and parliaments and judges.”

There is growing evidence that the internet is altering democracy. “It has changed politics,” says Sir Tim. “It definitely had an effect on the way the Obama election worked. The individual is empowered, the electorate is informed. The web is a place where people can be held accountable for what they’ve said. “I think in China and Iran there is wide understanding that there is limited information coming online. Obviously I think the internet is much better when it’s not censored.”

The founders of Google and Microsoft have made their fortunes out of the world wide web, as have numerous other dot-com entrepreneurs. Sir Tim, though, has never cashed in on his brilliant idea. He doesn’t have a yacht or a mansion or a private jet. But neither does he have any regrets about his lack of wealth.

“I couldn’t have made a fortune even if I’d wanted to,” he says. “If I’d patented my idea and tried to make money, other people would have just set up rival networks and it wouldn’t have worked. The web only happened because everyone pulled together.”


Born June 8, 1955

Educated Emanuel School, London; Queen’s College, Oxford

Web creation First proposed the world wide web in 1989. It was launched on the internet in 1991. In 1994, founded the World Wide Web Consortium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It comprised various companies that were willing to create standards and recommendations to improve the quality of the web

Awards Named a professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton in December 2004. Awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen in 2007. Appointed an adviser by Gordon Brown, 2009

Family Separated, with two children