Web Creator Tim Berners-Lee: Blockchain Builders Should Beware Misuse

Sir Tim Berners-Lee encouraged the blockchain space to think about the unintended consequences of its actions in a talk at Ripple's Swell conference.

AccessTimeIconOct 17, 2017 at 6:40 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:03 a.m. UTC
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"Be careful. Think."

Said by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known for inventing the World Wide Web, this statement of caution cut to the heart of his whirlwind talk at Ripple's Swell conference in Toronto today.

During the keynote, Berners-Lee recounted his time creating the web, leaving attendees with takeaways for the blockchain industry. Citing recent controversies surrounding Facebook, he went so far as to discuss how some of the same technologies he created have been leveraged in unintended ways, such as by political organizations in efforts to sway elections.

"The message here is that in these things we build [on the web], there is a time for creativity; there is a time for consortia working together; and there is a time of consequences," he said.

Berners-Lee told the audience:

"And we have to think about the consequences."

Elsewhere, Berners-Lee hinted at what he sees as the vision for a world powered by blockchains, noting how he foresees banks in different countries using the technology to enable safer transactions.

But still, he returned to the idea entrepreneurs interested in creating these applications must think about the future and how that technology could affect humanity and the economy.

"Great things could come of it," he said. "But maybe you'll end up producing huge waves of crime."

It's an interesting forewarning given the associations between cryptocurrencies and illicit activity, such as the drug trade and money laundering. But he suggested the admonition should be heeded by those building private blockchain projects, as well.

Overall, the message was clear – we can never quite tell how technology will be used.

Work to be done

Of course, Berners-Lee also noted the work he is helping spearhead toward this goal.

Berners-Lee, who is now director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), develops standards in an effort to keep the internet open and neutral, and already, there is work going on inside the W3C on blockchain.

Ripple, through its hand in the Interledger Protocol, for instance, is part of the W3C's Web Payments Working Group, and there are other API initiatives being developed with the technology in mind.

But according to Berners-Lee, neither blockchain or standards that support them are magic bullets that will solve all the world's problems, especially the hackers, prying eyes and government spying that have hindered experiences on the web.

"Moving everything to blockchain and Tor will give us a false sense of security," he said.

Instead, Berners-Lee advised advocates to engage in constructive discussions with governments, regulators and companies, and to even encourages protests, if warranted.

He concluded:

"Make banners and signs and protest in the streets; we had to then, we'll have to again."

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Ripple.

Tim Berners-Lee image via Bailey Reutzel

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