The government’s controversial plans to allow intelligence agencies to monitor the internet use and digital communications of every person in the UK suffered a fresh blow on Tuesday when the inventor of the world wide web warned that the measures were dangerous and should be dropped.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who serves as an adviser to the government on how to make public data more accessible, says the extension of the state’s surveillance powers would be a “destruction of human rights” and would make a huge amount of highly intimate information vulnerable to theft or release by corrupt officials. In an interview with the Guardian, Berners-Lee said: “The amount of control you have over somebody if you can monitor internet activity is amazing.
“You get to know every detail, you get to know, in a way, more intimate details about their life than any person that they talk to because often people will confide in the internet as they find their way through medical websites … or as an adolescent finds their way through a website about homosexuality, wondering what they are and whether they should talk to people about it.”
The British computer engineer, who devised the system that allows the creation of websites and links, said that of all the recent developments on the internet, it was moves by governments to control or spy on the internet that “keep me up most at night”.
The government ran into a storm of criticism earlier this month when it emerged that it was planning to allow GCHQ to monitor all communication on social media, Skype calls and email communication as well as logging every site visited by internet users in Britain.
Berners-Lee said: “The idea that we should routinely record information about people is obviously very dangerous. It means that there will be information around which could be stolen, which can be acquired through corrupt officials or corrupt operators, and [could be] used, for example, to blackmail people in the government or people in the military. We open ourselves out, if we store this information, to it being abused.”
He said that if the government believed it was essential to collect this kind of sensitive data about individuals, it would have to establish a “very strong independent body” which would be able to investigate every use of the surveillance powers to establish whether the target did pose a threat, and whether the intrusion had produced valuable evidence.
But he said that since the coalition had not spelled out an oversight regime, or how the data could be safely stored, “the most important thing to do is to stop the bill as it is at the moment”.
The intervention of the highly respected internet pioneer creates a headache for Theresa May, the home secretary, who has said she plans to press on with introducing the new measures after the Queen’s speech next month, despite concerns raised by senior Liberal Democrats. It will add to the woes of ministers mired in damaging battles over unpopular policy proposals on several fronts.
Berners-Lee was speaking to the Guardian as part of a week-long series on the battle for control of the internet, examining how states, companies and technological developments are challenging the principles of openness and universal access on which the net was built.
Berners-Lee has been an outspoken defender of the “open internet”, warning in 2010 that web freedom was under threat from the rise of social network “silos” such as Facebook, “closed world” apps such as those released by Apple, and governments’ attempts to monitor people’s online behaviour.