LONDON (Reuters) - China’s rulers will ultimately take it upon themselves to dismantle the “great firewall” that limits its people’s access to the Internet because doing so will boost China’s economy, the inventor of the World Wide Web said.
In an interview about his World Wide Web Foundation’s rankings of the way 81 countries manage the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, a London-born computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, also scolded the United States for undermining the Internet’s foundations with its surveillance programmes.
Revelations about the scale of that surveillance and poor rural penetration rates pushed the United States from second place into fourth in the survey, which examined Internet access, freedom and content. Sweden came out on top for the second year.
But it was China, which the survey ranked at 57 out of 81, down from a ranking of 29 out of 61 last year, where Berners-Lee saw the greatest potential for improvement.
“The Berlin Wall tumbled down, the great firewall of China - I don’t think it will tumble down, I think it will be released,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“My hope is that bit-by-bit, quietly, website-by-website, it will start to be relaxed,” he said. “The agility of a country which allows full access to the web is just greater; it will be a stronger country economically as well.”
China’s state Web-censorship system blocks Facebook, Twitter and some foreign news sites as well as content that the Communist leadership considers damaging to stability and cohesion.
“The citizens are not really in a position to smash the great firewall because the government controls the Internet, the Internet companies,” said Berners-Lee, 58.
“All that can happen is that the government realises it is not in their interests, that it is holding up the economy, holding up the development of the country.”
Berners-Lee said he was encouraged that the increased use of social media had stoked political mobilisation across the planet, but cautioned that growing surveillance and censorship threatened the future of democracy.
Berners-Lee took particular aim at eavesdropping conducted by the United States and Britain, saying the extent of the spying laid bare by U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden showed that rights had been set back.
“The rights of the individual have been severely eroded and eroded in secret,” he said of the U.S. and British surveillance programmes. “It is a very serious threat to the Internet.”
While he admitted the state needed the power to tackle criminals using the Internet, he called for greater oversight over spy agencies such Britain’s GCHQ and the NSA, and over any organisations collecting information about private individuals.
“It is clear in the case of the U.S. and the UK that there just has not been that oversight and accountability to the public,” he said.
“Whatever oversight you have has to be very strong, have the ability to find things out and strong rights to be told things ... It has got to be very seriously independent and accountable directly to the public rather than accountable through some secret route to part of government.”
Britain’s spy chiefs have argued that media reports about Snowden’s revelations have weakened the ability of the security services to stop those plotting deadly attacks against the West.
Britain came third in the rankings, the same as in 2012 but below Norway in second place. Russia, the world’s biggest energy producer, was at 41 in the ranking.
A map of the world produced by Berners-Lee’s foundation showed Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as countries which extensively censored political content.
So was it really worth inventing the World Wide Web, and has it been a force for good or for evil?
“Overall, it has been a staggering force for good because it has been so empowering for humanity,” he said. “Humanity is basically good, creative and collaborative.”
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Sonya Hepinstall