The Nobel Committee got it wrong

Dateline: 17 October 2007

So, the inventor of the internet wins a Nobel peace prize. Not a bad call. A very good one in fact. Except that Al Gore never did invent the internet, he just made few speeches in Congress about it. And he won the prize for a rather bad film with quite a few inconvenient untruths in it.

A much better choice would have been Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He didn’t invent the internet either, but he invented the world wide web, which is the next best thing. E-mail predates the web, and is a vitally important component of the internet, but the web is, in computer jargon, the killer app. “Killer app” just means the decisive application – the one that makes you buy. Without the web, people would not bother to have the internet, and you can’t send an e-mail to someone who isn’t connected.

Berners -Lee has changed the world in many ways. His invention has contributed to peace, prosperity and to ongoing challenges to tyranny. Technologies usually end up changing the world more than we imagine. This one will change the world more than we can imagine.

My generation has an abiding image of Ronald Reagan declaiming “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. We have another even more powerful image of the wall coming down. The contribution of Xerox Laboratories to creating that moment is often overlooked. As a young volunteer I used to send letters into the old Soviet Union. The recipients were asked to copy, by hand, these missives from the Association for a Free Russia, and pass the copies on. The Soviet Union imposed massive taxes and licensing burdens on the ownership of photocopiers precisely to prevent the mass production – mass meaning even tens of copies – of material that was not under its control. But, eventually, the truth about life in the West began to circulate. Dictatorships depend on controlling information. Tim Berners-Lee made that a lot harder.

The Chinese government tries to create barriers to people using the internet for unapproved purposes. Some phrases simply cannot be typed in Chinese chatrooms: “Tibet independence”, “Tiananmen Square” and “Taiwan independence” are three. But if you type “Tiibet independence”, no problem. The young people who use the chatrooms all know they ways around the restrictions, and unapproved ideas are heatedly debated.

In the wired world, a government which wishes to stop the flow of information or which wishes to abolish dangerous ideas might as well wish that water would flow up hill.

The web transforms lives at the micro as well as the macro level. I am not the only person to have married someone I met online. The web will increasingly take education out of government control. It shatters the price fixing mechanisms and special taxes which politicians dole out to campaign contributors in business and the unions. It transforms the way people interact with others, overwhelmingly for the good.

Like all technologies, it can be used by bad people as well as good. But the sensationalization of this is a passing media fad that will be forgotten in few years. There will be no internet pedophiles. Just the same pedophiles who have existed throughout history.

There are many people more deserving of this prize than Al Gore. But Tim Berners-Lee is right up there near the top of the list.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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