Tim Berners-Lee’s Congressional testimony on the Web’s future

March 2nd, 2007

Yesterday the US House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing on the “Digital Future of the United States: Part I — The Future of the World Wide Web”. The subcommittee is chaired by Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA) who has said that over the next two years he will focus on fostering competition that will benefit consumers, starting with a reexamination of the future of the Internet and radio.

“US Representative Edward J. Markey will next week begin to review hot-button issues such as network neutrality and the proposed merger between satellite radio giants XM and Sirius, as he takes charge of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet after a 12-year hiatus.” (source)

First up is net neutrality and related issues.

“He stressed that network neutrality — an initiative to ensure that the Internet does not become a two-tiered system in which some companies pay fees for priority access –will likely dominate the discussion over the next two years. Innovations such as the Web browser, search engines, and the Internet did not emerge from large established companies, and forcing firms to pay more to reach users would stifle creativity, he said.” (source)

Yesterday’s hearing featured testimony by Tim Berners-Lee on the Web’s future. The testimony laid out three principles that helped make the Web a success.

“The success of the World Wide Web, itself built on the open Internet, has depended on three critical factors: 1) unlimited links from any part of the Web to any other; 2) open technical standards as the basis for continued growth of innovation applications; and 3) separation of network layers, enabling independent innovation for network transport, routing and information applications. Today these characteristics of the Web are easily overlooked as obvious, self-maintaining, or just unimportant. All who use the Web to publish or access information take it for granted that any Web page on the planet will be accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection, regardless whether it is over a dialup modem or a high speed multi-megabit per second digital access line. … Today I will speak primarily about the World Wide Web. I hesitate to point out that the Web is just one of the many applications that run on top of the Internet. As with other Internet applications such as email, instant messaging, and voice over IP, the Web would have been impossible to create without the Internet itself operating as an open platform.”

He illustrated the principle of universal linking (that “anyone can connect to anyone, any page can link to any page” with blogs

“A current example of the low barriers to reading, writing and linking on the Web is the world of blogs. Blogs hardly existed five years ago, but have become an enormously popular means of expression for everything from politics to local news, to art and science. The low barriers to publishing pages and abundance of linking ability have come together, most recently with blogs, to create an open platform for expression and exchange of all kinds.”

and drove home the point that the Web’s linking architecture easily overcomes boundaries of distance, language, and domains of knowledge.

The second part of his testimony focused on the future and mentioned three trends: moving to a web of data, opening the web to a more diverse range of devices (e.g., mobile phones) and increasingly pervasive and ubiquitous web applications. It’s the first one he has the most to say about, not surprisingly.

“Digital information about nearly every aspect of our lives is being created at an astonishing rate. Locked within all of this data is the key to knowledge about how to cure diseases, create business value, and govern our world more effectively. The good news is that a number of technical innovations (RDF which is to data what HTML is to documents, and the Web Ontology Language (OWL) which allows us to express how data sources connect together) along with more openness in information sharing practices are moving the World Wide Web toward what we call the Semantic Web. … The Semantic Web will enable better data integration by allowing everyone who puts individual items of data on the Web to link them with other pieces of data using standard formats.”

Tim Berners-Lee’s testimony was a great summary of what makes the Web and Internet strong and I think the three future trends are good predictions of what’s to come next.