Worldwide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is sounding the alarm bell about how much companies know about what we do online, saying forces are “trying to take control of the Internet” in a way that is undermining the founding principles of the Web.
The warning follows recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, under which the spy agency reportedly extracts vast amounts of personal information from Google, Facebook, Apple and other Internet companies.
These reports are “deeply concerning”, Berners-Lee said.
“Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society,” he said in a statement sent to the Financial Times.
“I call on all web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data.”
“Over the last two decades, the web has become an integral part of our lives. A trace of our use of it can reveal very intimate personal things. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”
A number of major tech companies issued statements last week denying their reported role in the NSA’s PRISM program.
In a blog posting last Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the reports “outrageous,” saying the social network “is not and never has been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers.”
“We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight in aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of Prism before yesterday.”
Google CEO Larry Page and chief legal officer David Drummond issued similar remarks last Friday.
“We have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday,” they wrote in a blog posting.
Apple issued a similar statement in an email to various media outlets.
“We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order,” the company said.
Yahoo, Microsoft, Dropbox and AOL all issued similar statements.
At the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition in Monte Carlo this week, Berners-Lee called on governments to protect the neutrality and independence of the Web, likening its importance to that of freedom of the press.
“Organizations that keep the Internet running” should be “connected to government but at arms length,” The Telegraph quoted him as saying.
“Once you have an open Internet, with an open world wide web on top of it, I’m very optimistic,” he said.
Berners-Lee’s remarks follow a United Nations report issued earlier this week cautioning that governments were “lowering the threshold and increasing the justifications” for surveillance.
“Freedom of expression cannot be ensured without respect to privacy in communications,” said Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression.