Web creator works to bridge digital divide

Tim Berners-Lee (left) and Gordon Brown hope to open the web up to the 80 per cent of the world that does not have access Keystone

Modern mobile phones offer basic web access that has the potential to accelerate social and economic change in the developing world, says the worldwide web inventor.

This content was published on April 7, 2011 - 13:25
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

Tim Berners-Lee and British former Prime Minister Gordon Brown were at Geneva University on Wednesday to talk about the future of the web and its role in initiating change.

After helping create the web in 1989 and guiding its technological development, the British scientist, who is director of the World Wide Web Foundation, is interested in expanding access to the 80 per cent of the world’s population who do not have access to the web.

The foundation is currently trying to help people in Africa, Asia and Latin America put useful local content in their languages on the web and access it via simple, ubiquitous, mobile phone technology.

“In Uganda even though there is no internet connectivity via cables, almost everywhere you go you have a signal on your mobile phone and the number of mobile phones is shooting up. So the question is how do we get the web to work on phones?” said Berners-Lee.

His organisation has piloted a web entrepreneur project in Ghana that teaches people to build simple websites that work on mobile phones. The initiative has now moved to Senegal and Kenya and the hope is to replicate it worldwide with minimum resources.

The aim is to encourage rural communities and the poor to create and gain access to useful education, health, weather, and market and business information.

“In rural villages where there is an option between developing web access and installing water pipes, I initially assumed that getting a PVC pipe was the first priority,” Berners-Lee noted.

“But people in the field told me that was naive as when you get internet connectivity people can get jobs that bring in money... that allow you to quickly acquire the pipe."

Infrastructure in place

Today, the minimum infrastructure required for providing mobile browsing is available. Some 95 per cent of existing phones worldwide have a basic browser or possibility to have one, and 90 per cent of the world is covered by a minimum GSM mobile telephone network.

“There is too much focus on broadband but today there are five billion mobile phones worldwide. We should focus on what’s available to make a difference rather than the next technology,” Stéphane Boyera, programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, told

“What’s important is the content, services and information. We have to teach people how to develop HTML sites that fit low capacity browsers and bandwidth.”

It was also important to work on a low-cost pre-paid web access model for developing countries, he added.

Developing vision

Berners-Lee has a wider vision of what the web should become as it expands outside the industrialised world.

 “The web is not just like a sophisticated TV where you read information, it has to be participative,” he said.

“What I would like to see is even in small communities with local dialects there are local web servers with local blogs and people are producing stuff and creating their own communities and being first-class citizens of the web.”

Alongside the mobile entrepreneur initiative, the foundation is also working on voice-based web access technology for people who may be illiterate and speak languages that do not yet exist on the web.

“If you look at Africa’s future development, yes it will need good trade relations, massive infrastructure investment and for us to honour our aid commitments, but it’s also true that Africa needs to have access to the newest and most innovative technologies,” said Gordon Brown, who recently joined the foundation board.

Human right

Brown is convinced of the benefits of internet access, which he considers a human right.

“Our ability to connect and communicate with each other, to form friendships and connections across the internet is an essential element for the creation of a global society where strangers see people as neighbours rather than people to be afraid of,” he commented.

As British prime minister, Brown had been instrumental in getting Berners-Lee to create, giving online access to a wealth of British public data.

After Britain, the United States and Canada, the foundation is working with Ghana, Colombia and Chile to open up public data with a view to boosting accountability, transparency and economic value.

Berners-Lee urged other countries, including Switzerland, to follow their example.

“By being open the government psychologically puts itself on the same side as the public,” he said.

The world wide web

The first proposal for the worldwide web was made at Cern by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and further refined by him and Robert Cailliau in 1990.

The Web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automatic information sharing between scientists working in different universities and institutes all over the world.

The basic idea of the web was to merge the technologies of personal computers, computer networking and hypertext into a powerful and easy to use global information system. 

The first web servers were all located in European physics laboratories and only a few users had access to the NeXT operating platform on which the first browser ran.

Cern soon provided a much simpler browser, which could be run on any system. A wide range of universities and research laboratories then started to use it. A little later it was made generally available via the internet, especially to the community of people working on hypertext systems. 

The existence of reliable user-friendly browsers on PC and Macintosh computers had an immediate impact on the spread of the web.

An essential feature was that the web should remain an open standard for all to use and that no-one should lock it up into a proprietary system.

In January 1995, the International World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded 'to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability'.

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Social networking threats

In an essay in the November 2010 edition of the Scientific American journal, Tim Berners-Lee warned that Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites represent “one of several threats" to the future of the world wide web.

“The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles,” he wrote. “The web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles.”

“The more you enter [social networking sites], the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform – a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.

“The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”

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