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Web inventor claims government control limits Net's potential

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The inventor of the World Wide Web warned Friday that government control is limiting the possibilities of the Internet, as dozens of countries and businesses signed a cybersecurity deal at the Davos forum.

The comments by Tim Berners-Lee at the World Economic Forum plugged into a wider debate among the delegates on the future of the Internet, particularly how to balance openness with privacy and security.

While Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer told the forum there was a “trade off” between privacy and the benefits of increasingly personalized services offered by Internet giants, the network's founding father took up the ethical issues at stake.

“The dream is of a more open web,” Berners-Lee told the gathering in the Swiss ski resort, citing social media as a way of breaking down barriers.

But he said the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old U.S. Internet activist who faced charges of illegally copying and distributing millions of academic articles, highlighted government efforts to police the Internet.

“He downloaded a lot and so the secret service in the U.S. decided that he was a hacker. For them that isn't the term of great praise that it is when I use it. For me a hacker is someone who is creative and does wonderful things,” he said.

Berners-Lee — who launched the first Web page on Christmas Day 1990 and is credited with creating the World Wide Web — called on international governments to release more data, saying that others could use it to find solutions to problems including economic and health issues.

“They can give you 101 reasons for not doing it but it comes down to control,” the Briton told the forum.

But Yahoo CEO Mayer had a different take when it came to data about individual users held by companies such as hers and by other Internet giants such as Facebook and Google.

“I think that privacy will always be something that users should consider. But I also think that privacy is a trade off,” she said.

“Because where you give that personal information you get functionality in return.”

Mayer, 37, who took over in July at Yahoo after 13 years at Google in a move aimed at reinvigorating the faded Internet firm, said the future lay in the increased “personalization” of the Web.

She predicted the dominance in coming years of handheld Internet devices to take personalized content.

But she added: “The real question is making money from it.”

Joichi Ito, director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the Internet worked best when it was governed only by the needs of individual users and communities.

“The Internet is a bunch of humble little small pieces loosely joined. There's no one on the Internet that tries to control the whole of it,” he said.

“When you're in a network and you've got YouTube and Facebook and you've got all these other things, lots of little features together make the whole work.”

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