The Founder of the Web Wants to Protect You From the Web

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Tim Berners-Lee reframes the argument for personal privacy.

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Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has moved into a new role: the defender of the World Wide Web. And, more specifically, the defender of the users of the World Wide Web. In an interview with The Guardian, the innovator-turned-advocate argued that users should demand their personal data from the companies that would try to contain them.

That's not surprising; Berners-Lee has been a staunch and vocal and passionate proponent of keeping the open web actually open -- and data ownership is a part of that. What's interesting, though, is the way Berners-Lee is framing his argument for openness. "My computer has a great understanding of my state of fitness, of the things I'm eating, of the places I'm at," Berners-Lee told reporter Ian Katz. "My phone understands from being in my pocket how much exercise I've been getting and how many stairs I've been walking up and so on." Katz summarizes the inventor's argument like so: "Exploiting that information could provide hugely useful services to individuals."

Hugely useful services. Yes. And while that line of logic creates as many questions as it answers -- what, actually, would those services look like? -- it's worth noting how Berners-Lee is presenting it. We tend to think about data and privacy and all the rest in, generally, negative terms: Your data need protection. Your data need to be feared for. Do a quick search of "personal data" on Google News; odds are, the headlines served up will contain words like "concerns," "trust," "privacy," "theft," etc. And our data demand vigilance, the logic goes, because they are, in a very real sense, an extension of who we are. Our info, ourselves. Our data trails, we assume, must be kept safe from others because they lead, in the end, to our identities.

But what Berners-Lee is doing, in all his talk of the utility of data, is shifting the value proposition of personal information. He's reframing digital data as something that has a direct value to the users who generate it -- not as some kind of fuzzy extension of identity, but as information that has a pragmatic worth. And that's important, especially at this moment that finds us in the midst of a culture-wide -- and cross-culture -- reframing of privacy as a construct. As Helen Nissenbaum argues through her proposed paradigms of privacy and publicness, the value of sharing itself can get buried, a bit, in the traditional private/public binaries. And as Alexis Madrigal notes, riffing on Nissenbaum's ideas, "more information becoming available about you may not automatically be a bad thing. In fact, laying out the transmission principles for given situations may encourage people, both as individuals and collectively, to share more and attain greater good."

Berners-Lee's framing is an extension of those arguments. And it's a way of re-empowering users when it comes to their personal data, of giving them a tangible reason to know and care about their digital selves. A recent Pew survey found that 73 percent of Americans object to being tracked online (in this case, by search engines like Google); at the same time, though, only 38 percent said they knew of ways to control the data collected about them. There's a broad sense of impotence when it comes to digital privacy: We want it -- but we're not quite sure how to achieve it. A new framework could change that.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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