Elon University

Special Session: Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Danny Weitzner

An interview about the future of the Internet hosted by Lee Rainie, Pew Internet

Brief description: Pew Internet & American Life Project Director Lee Rainie discusses the future of the Internet with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Danny Weitzner, formerly W3C Technology & Society Policy director, now the associate administrator for policy at the United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (No photographs or video of Berners-Lee were allowed to be distributed to this site; permission was given for use of video on the FutureWeb site. Find the links at the bottom of the story.)

Details of the session

The Internet may seem ubiquitous to those of us who are connected, but according to Danny Weitzner, “a full 30 percent of the U.S. population has never used the Internet, does not use the Internet at all.” He said it is the “most striking statistic” found thus far as the government addresses the challenges of providing universal broadband access. “It’s an enormous number of people, given the essential nature of the Internet for US society,” he added.

He said the reasons behind this phenomenon are unknown but likely to be quite varied, from affordability issues to fear of new technology to an inability to recognize the usefulness of the Internet as a tool. In the next few years, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration will be working with the Census Bureau to identify needs and concerns to help fill in the information gaps on the state and county level, eventually making the information open to the public. “A big part of our research agenda going forward is to figure out who these people are, why are they not online, and also to understand the impact.”

Weitzner said there’s a lot to learn about cost-effective ways to provide wireless Internet access to all of the hard-to reach areas of the country. Out of the $787 billion in stimulus funds allotted by Congress for the 2009 Recovery Act, NTIA was given $5 billion to invest in achieving broadband infrastructure improvements. It is building a variety of projects out to the unserved and underserved public. A primary strategy is to fund “middle-mile” projects – extensions of the Internet backbone into areas that have low Internet connectability or few people connecting for other reasons. Weitzner said the FCC is being strongly encouraged to identify ways to gain more broadband spectrum in the US on the way to providing more access and developing widespread 4G service.

“I think there must be the right mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrums,” he said. “That’s an essential part of closing that 30 percent gap.”

Weitzner is associate administrator for the Office of Policy Analysis and Development in the Commerce Department’s NTIA. He works in the public sector now, but for years was a leader outside government, including a leadership position with the World Wide Web Consortium, and he said he values the private sector’s importance in the Internet’s development.

“[The Internet] could never have been ordered up by any government,” Weitzner said. “Governments are – appropriately – very careful about what they do. These people were not – sorry – very careful.”

Weitzner noted that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and his colleagues were able to innovate because they could think outside the limitations of government, and they created a network on top of the existing Internet that has permeated nearly every aspect of life.

Berners-Lee said one of his greatest hopes for the future of the Internet is taking education to a global level, one day having a synthesized classroom implementing stereo sound, webcams and wall-sized screens. He noted that there are people in remote areas who are leveraging the Web in education to do “some really nifty things” – especially in remote locations. He also mentioned MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, which, he happily pointed out, was planned and initiated “just because it was a good idea.”

He said he hopes education becomes much more open and global in character. “My original desire would be a huge, great sandbox and teachers collaborating from different countries to plan courses” he said, that would truly be crossing boundaries of socio-economic status.

The discussion turned to the fact that while 65 percent of the people living in the US use the Internet, only 20-25 percent of people in the world have online access.

“When only one percent of people in the world had heard of the Internet, it would have been ridiculous to talk about getting everyone to use it,” Berners-Lee said, adding that now is the time to help people learn about all of the great reasons to share information online. He said global access is a foreseeable goal and pointed out the positive economic benefits of moving most government and commercial activity online. The World Wide Web Foundation, an organization he founded in the past year, has the goal of encouraging social development in new and better ways.

Both speakers noted that technology is not always the problem stopping people from going online.

Berners-Lee pointed out that in rural parts of Africa, people with cell phones can get 3G coverage “if they go to the top of the hill.” But the capacity for some people to understand the value of the Internet or to understand how to use it is a barrier – illiteracy and lack of education often play a major role in keeping the entire world from going online.

Weitzner said public policy will be essential for shaping the Internet over the next decade. The courts just overturned FCC net neutrality rules, and the US government is reevaluating its policies as it looks to the future. “While there is a very vigorous political battle about what the Federal Communications Commission ought to be in this area, essentially everyone on all sides of the debate, whether it be Internet Service Providers or large Web companies or consumer advocates, or almost anyone else, everyone says, ‘Of course, the Internet should be open and nondiscriminatory,” he said. “The optimistic view is that we’ll get there quickly, with a minimum of rancor – that may be a little optimistic, the last part – there willbe some rancor.

“One of the concerns the administration has brought to this question from the beginning is: We want to make sure the Internet is open, number one. That’s clearly critical for the way the Internet has functioned, for the development of all of the applications, and services that sit on top of the Internet – the World Wide Web, not the least of which. It’s clearly vital to have an open environment. I think at the same time having an environment of uncertainty, not knowing what the rules are, is not going to be good for anyone. It’s not going to be good for investment decisions that we hope broadband Internet Service Providers are going to make. When we think of closing that 30 percent gap in Internet service we want to make sure that the Internet Service Providers, either the existing ones or new ones, can feel that they have a viable business in providing high-quality, high-speed Internet access. So we have to make sure that the rules are clear. We have to do that for the network operators and also for the innovators and entrepreneurs who are going to be thinking of developing new Web services in the future. You’re not going to go develop a new Web service today if you think tomorrow an ISP might decide to shut it off. The Web – as Tim points out, he didn’t have to go ask permission of any Internet Service Provider to start this thing called the World Wide Web, it just ran on top of the Internet without any interference and without any permission. That’s clearly a critical environment to maintain. So, I think it’s going to be an important couple of months coming up as we see how this all plays out.”

Whether or not the dispute will play out peacefully, Berners-Lee maintains that society’s efforts today will leave an impact even when people are running “Windows 3000.”

Links to Flip video footage from this session on FutureWeb’s YouTube Channel:

Click here to see the FutureWeb 2010 videos. 

– Posted by Rachel Cieri and Janna Anderson, Imagining the Internet

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