Two decades after creating the web, Tim Berners-Lee says humans have become so reliant on it that online access should now be considered a basic right.
In a speech at an MIT symposium, Berners-Lee compared access to the web with access to water. While access to water is a more fundamental right, because people simply cannot survive without it, web access should be seen as a right, too, because anyone who lacks web access will fall behind their more connected peers.
"Access to the web is now a human right," he said. "It's possible to live without the web. It's not possible to live without water. But if you've got water, then the difference between somebody who is connected to the web and is part of the information society, and someone who (is not) is growing bigger and bigger."
Berners-Lee appeared at the MIT symposium on Computation and the Transformation of Practically Everything, part of the school's 150th anniversary celebration. Other notable speakers included Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), who also created the MIT Media Lab.
Berners-Lee has been outspoken on net neutrality and at MIT warned against ISPs having too much control over how we use the web. Berners-Lee also touched on smartphones, repeating his stance that it is better to develop web apps that run on mobile devices than to create apps that circumvent the open web.
He also said it's important for the Internet not to simply become an instrument to spread unfounded rumours and conspiracy theories. One of his goals is to make it a system in which scientists can share data and information more effectively.
The web has grown so large that the number of web pages rivals the number of neurons in a human brain, Berners-Lee said. And the web must be analysed, just as we analyse the brain.
"To a certain extent, we have a duty about the web which is greater than our duty about the brain, because with the brain we just analyse it," he said. "But with the web, we actually get to engineer it. We can change it."
Negroponte used his time on stage to reflect on both the MIT Media Lab and the OLPC project, which has supplied millions of cheap computers to children in some of the world's poorest countries. Negroponte's project could be seen as extending the idea that the web is a basic human right with concrete action, putting laptops in the hands of children who otherwise would not get them.
Negroponte showed pictures of children around the world using the laptops, including one in Peru who was teaching his grandparents how to read and write. Each laptop, he noted, came loaded with 100 books. When 100 laptops were shipped to a village, that meant 10,000 books were coming with them.
The free market alone would not have been a great enough force to accomplish this, he said.