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Alarm Bells: "Open Web" In Danger, Says Brin, Berners-Lee

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Even as the web becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, there are storm clouds on the horizon.

Speaking in the UK, one of the web's most successful entrepreneurs said: "... very powerful forces that have lined up against the open Internet on all sides and around the world." That quote was from someone who should know; it was Google's Sergey Brin.

So, is the open Internet in danger? That was the very question I posed at SXSW -- inviting a panel of some of the webs best known thinkers to explore the dangers ahead.

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So here's my SXSW Panel of experts. A Greek chorus. Only this is more of a Geek Chorus. Tim Berners-Lee, widely acknowledged as the inventor of the World Wide Web, back in 1989, said: "What's been driving the government and driving legislation is a fear of teenagers stealing music. The web is a lot more than teenagers stealing music."

Our next panelist is Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly Media. O'Reilly Media's mission is to spread the knowledge of innovators through its books, online services, magazines, research, and conferences. He is the founder of MAKE magazine, and coined the term Web 2.0. I asked him if he thought there were lines between a cloud ecosystem and a closed web. He said he sees Apple as more of a threat to openness than other web companies.

And finally, I invited Juan Enriquez to join the conversation. Juan is a big thinker who studies the intersection of science, business and society. He has a talent for bridging disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He has "published widely on topics from the technical (global nucleotide data flow) to the sociological (gene research and national competitiveness), and was a member of Craig Venter's marine-based team to collect genetic data from the world's oceans." Simply put, Enriquez can see the future.

As Enriquez looks at the future, he sees the web poised for dramatic change. He says data creation is exceeding Moore's law by a factor of two or three times, and the size of datasets is exceeding the size of the pipes we have available today.

Data overload, as its come to be known, is overwhelming both humans and computers -- and a quick look at the statistics make that frighteningly clear.

Just two years ago, In 2010, we played, swam, wallowed, and drowned in 1.2 zettabytes of data. In 2011 the volume grew along its exponential growth curve to 1.8 zettabytes. (A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes; that's a 1 with 21 zeros trailing behind it.)

More specifically, a day in the life of the web today includes:

-- 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day.

-- 864,000 thousand hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day.

-- 294 billion emails are sent every day. That's why you can't read all the mail you get any more.

Joe Hellerstein, computer scientist at UC Berkeley, calls it"the industrial revolution of data." But in it's current form, it's noisy. Just 5 percent of information is "structured." The rest are things like photos and video which are less easily retrievable and usable.

The complexity arises around who creates so much of this data, and who controls its use. Not surprisingly around the world, the answer is government. Governments keeps records on every birth, marriage and death, compiles figures on all aspects of the economy -- and keep statistics on licenses, laws and the weather.

Tim Berners-Lee says that governments and large companies need to hear the voice of the web, and that users need to remain vigilant in order to insure that the open web remains open.

Says Berners-Lee: "What's unsettling is that in the United States, where the web is becoming a huge amount of people's lives, we're using the web in critical ways. Yet, what is driving the government is a lobby that is worried about teenagers stealing music. The web is a lot more than teenagers steeling music. If we set up the legal system so that this horrible thing, a teenager stealing music, doesn't happen at all -- then we make sure people can be cut off without a trial from using the Internet, then we end up giving governments the power to abuse the Internet."

Berners-Lee says that when you give governments the power to cut people off, or spy on people, then governments will misuse this power. Not just this government, which you may support but future governments that you may not support. "Governments in oppressive countries have already proven to be very abusive to their citizens. Once you allow governments to take that power, then that will be abused. The medium is no longer neutral, the medium can not be trusted."

So the founder of the web is worried about a closed web. And Google's co-found agrees. Sergey Brin told the Guardian UK: "I am more worried than I have been in the past, it's scary."

Brin is concerned about governments, but he points to closed ecosystems like apps that don't invite data interoperability. "There's a lot to be lost," he said. "For example, all the information in apps -- that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search it."

One thing is certain. Politicians throughout the democratic world are pushing for stronger censorship and surveillance by Internet companies to stop the theft of intellectual property. They are doing so in response to aggressive lobbying by corporate constituents without serious consideration of the consequences for civil liberties, and for democracy more broadly.

Says noted web innovator and blogger John Battelle, "If we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a 'tangled bank' where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation."

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