Hands off my cookie jar!

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, and Time Magazine’s ‘One of the 100 greatest minds of the [last] century‘, is a man with a mission. British born Berners-Lee has been living in Boston and applying his considerable knowledge and visionary zest at MIT, focusing on The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), “a joint endeavour between the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton.” The WSRI aims to “facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web.”

Berners-Lee is one of the four directors driving this exciting project at MIT and at the University of Southampton. The others are Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Prof. James Hendler from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Department of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University, and Daniel J. Weitzner, W3C Technology and Society Policy Director.

Web Science, say WSRI directors in a paper they wrote (“A Framework for Web Science”, available for download as pdf) is “the science of decentralised information systems. Web Science is required both as a way to understand the Web, and as a way to focus its development on key communicational and representational requirements.” For me, the concept of Web Science is a satisfactory response to the obvious need to study decentralised information systems, as well as an inspiring show of leadership among internet and web pioneers, who now get down to give something back to the users’ community.

It is, however, indicative that in one of Berners-Lee’s recent interviews he spent more time talking about the now-web, rather than reminiscing about the past of dreaming about the future: Berners-Lee is ticked off about a plan by major UK Internet Service Providers to use a tracking system called Phorm. Phorm tracks users’ movements and sell them to marketing agencies in order to provide so-called ‘personal advertising’. In fact, Phorm is probably close to infringement of privacy, since it, initially, does not ask or receive users’ permission to be tracked.

Berners-Lee’s personal information, he says in his BBC interview, is his – and only his “It’s mine – you can’t have it . If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.” The Phorm plan caused major debates online — not unlike the debate that forced social network Facebook to change a similarly intrusive system, called Beacon, to operate on permission basis (allowing people to opt-out of the tracking process.)

It is crucially important that, while Berners-Lee and his WSRI colleagues set out to map the future of Web Science and decentralised information systems, they keep a keen eye on the way information is harvested / milked / picked / pulled / collated without permission or accountability. The world should seek to tighten its privacy laws and call offenders to task. In the meantime, feel free to tell you ISP to take a hike, if they are found with their hand in your cookie jar.

Contribute to ToingToing!