Web’s creator to fintech players: Beware the blockchain Frankenstein

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TORONTO -- Internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee looks at the fintech landscape today and sees something familiar — a creative ferment that reminds him of the early web. He also sees some mistakes in danger of being repeated.

Widely regarded as the father of the World Wide Web, which he invented while working as a scientist at CERN, Berners-Lee described the "heady and exciting time" of the early 1990s, when he was hashing out the rules for HTML and other basic web features.

Just as the web represented a "fundamental change in the way things work," he said, so various innovations being made today in financial technology — especially the blockchain — hold out the promise of significant change.

Before the web existed, he said, "people had to go to the library to do things. [For] now they have to go to the bank."

Speaking at the Swell conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Berners-Lee had two key messages for the audience of bankers and technologists. The first concerned people who may be left behind by the coming paradigm shift.

"At a certain point — when 10% of the world was using the Web — that was a light bulb moment," he said.

He felt guilty, because he realized that every time he and his colleagues made the web more powerful, they increased the gap between those who had access to it and those who didn't. Each new groundbreaking invention raises the specter of inequality.

His second point was still more sobering. The difficult but crucial task for technologists today, he said, is to anticipate the unintended consequences of their work. The creators of email didn't anticipate spam. Berners-Lee himself had not anticipated the crisis of fake news.

For a long time, when someone would complain to him about junk on the web, he would simply tell the person to stop reading junk.

"For 20 years, a lot of us thought that that was not our problem," he said. Only very recently, with the last presidential election, did it dawn on him that all of the people who have been sucked into a universe of "alternative facts" have votes.

"In these things that we build, there is a time of creativity, there is a time of consortia and working together and there is a time of consequences. And we have to think about the consequences," Berners-Lee said.

The blockchain industry has progressed rapidly to the consortia phase, having passed through a wild infancy in which crypto-anarchists and digital libertarians held sway. Today, there are multiple coalitions devoted to distributed ledger technology, including the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger Project, which counts Spanish banking group BBVA among its members.

At the same time, dozens of banks are working toward commercial deployment of enterprise blockchain software built by Ripple, the San Francisco startup that organized Swell. Ripple's burgeoning network, a competitor to Swift, is known as RippleNet.

It is difficult to say what kind of world will emerge as a result.

"Yes, it's going to be exciting when two banks can connect through [Ripple's] Interledger Protocol and then you will actually be able for the first time to send money back to your family in Cuba or in Haiti without having to go through some horrible guy on the corner who rips you off. So you look forward to that," said Berners-Lee. "But do we think about what happens when suddenly the cost of sending money from one person to another is very, very much lower?"

When designing something that will lead to a new interaction between two people, he added, technologists should "try to think about what will be the effect on the world if everyone does that."

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Fintech Blockchain Distributed ledger technology Ripple BBVA SWIFT