A Conversation at the Berkman Center---And the Comments of Tim Berners-Lee

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, February 4, 2014, 9:48 AM

Yesterday afternoon, I was privileged to participate in a fascinating event at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Entitled "Defending an Unowned Internet: Opportunities for Technology, Policy, and Corporations," the event featured a particularly strong panel of people I have admired for a long time and was one of the most philosophically rich discussions of the current NSA issues I have been involved in. It was moderated by internet law scholar Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard and also included Harvard Law School's Yochai Benkler, Bruce Schneier---the noted security specialist---and Ebele Okobi, senior director of human rights at Yahoo! To my surprise, the audience turned out to include the computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who knows something about the World Wide Web---having, well, invented it. Berners-Lee spoke from the floor a fair bit and in served, in essence, as a fifth panelist.

There's a lot I could say about the event, but for now, I want to focus on Berners-Lee's remarks.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that when Berners-Lee took the microphone, my prejudices about the utopian world in which many internet theoreticians spend their time got the better of me. I fully expected him to have conventional libertarian views about the internet as a self-governing community that should be immune from surveillance activities. I was quite wrong. I don't have a transcript of his remarks, and I don't want to put words in his mouth. But I think it's fair to say that Berners-Lee expressed views a lot closer to NSA's views of the propriety of surveillance than to those espoused by many contemporary civil libertarians. That is, he had no in-principle objection to bulk collection and analysis of a great deal of communications---and other---data, and he wanted in evaluating NSA programs to focus instead on procedural rigor and ensuring appropriate oversight mechanisms.    

As soon as an audio of the event is available, I will edit it (it's quite long) and run it as a podcast. Both for Berners-Lee's comments and for the larger discussion, it is well worth people's time.