Thank you for the platitudes, Sir Berners-Lee



blog You may have noticed from the flurry of articles this week that Australia is currently playing host to British computer scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who many credit as being the inventor of the World Wide Web. Well, it’s nice to have visiting technology luminaries Down Under, especially when they follow the script so precisely laid out in Delimiter’s (patent-pending) Guide to Australia for visiting Tech Celebrities.

As mentioned in the guide, there are three steps required when visiting global technology luminaries visit Australia. Firstly, journalists must ask them what they think about the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network and Internet filter projects. Secondly, the tech celebrity must respond that the NBN is amazingly visionary and the filter a waste of time and an inhibition to freedom. Lastly, after mouthing such platitudes and meeting their local speaking and customer commitments, they head back overseas.

Berners-Lee has certainly done his part praising the NBN during his time in Australia (, ZDNet, Business Review Weekly), and while the filter is now defunct, he’s certainly also done his part damning Australia’s new great Internet evil, the Attorney-General’s data retention (‘OzLog’) project (iTNews, ZDNet, TechWorld Australia). And of course, although Berners-Lee doesn’t actually have Australian customers as such, he’s done an admirable job of hob-nobbing with the supposed creme de la creme of Australia’s tech industry at the CSIRO’s Digital Economy shindig and

It’s nice to see that our Guide to Australia for visiting Tech Celebrities remains so pertinent. Yes, Mr Berners-Lee. The NBN is good. Data retention is bad. Thank you for your wisdom and deep insight.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why Australians continually seek validation for our own experience and opinions from international experts of all kinds. Berners-Lee is, frankly, not an expert on telecommunications infrastructure (his work is conducted much higher up the network stack) and just does not have the expertise to comment in depth on the NBN, apart from to note in general that better Internet is a good thing (well, d’uh). It’s a similar case when it comes to the data retention issue. Again, Berners-Lee does not really work in the area of Internet surveillance and privacy; he explicitly works on web technical standards. He’s not qualified to comment in depth on data retention, apart from his generic background in computer science.

I think it’s something about Australia as a culture that we can’t bet on ourselves or our own opinions and are always seeking to have outsiders such as Berners-Lee (other examples include Vint Cerf, Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt) validate our approach when they visit Australia, regardless of their expertise in the areas they’re commenting on. Why doesn’t Australia have enough confidence in ourselves without these father figures looking on? I just don’t know. Certainly they never tell us anything we didn’t already know.

Image credit: Paul Clarke, Creative Commons


  1. He is not “qualified to comment on” it? Isn’t it more that he “has an interest in” it?

    You’re right, though, really. Australia’s a small country that apparently “punches above its weight” as politicians like to say, but it’s still largely Britain’s wayward cousin and America’s adopted little brother. It has always tried to seek validation on others’ terms, rather than establish its own unique identity.

    The NBN is one thing that, I hope, will change that. Being at the forefront of internet telecommunications with 93% of premises with access to high-speed gigabit fibre access (and the remaining 7% with passable internet access), Australia could become an internet application early-adoption haven.

    On a more political note, the temporary UN security council seat could have been another thing that could have changed the world’s perception of us and our own perception of ourselves, except that Australian representatives seem intent on saying “me too” to whatever US and UK representatives have to suggest. The seat hasn’t given Australia a voice, just given its allies an extra vote.

    What Australia needs is a more politically active and aware population and elected representatives that are not only visionary, but have the balls to stand up against those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and have a uniquely independently Australian identity separate from the rest of our political or economic “partners”. If Australia wants to be anymore than a follower, it needs to take the lead.

  2. I think you’re right here, hes probably not as qualified as others – but he provides a relevant point.

    Given how useless Federal Opposition are at claiming information as Gospel from people who arent even in the field they’re talking about; I wouldnt be too concerned hes made a comment or two. :)

  3. Ask the man a question you want heard and write about it. Don’t blame all Australians for the fact that some of the “local” IT journos would be better suited to red carpet duty.

  4. It’s easier to follow. It’s easier to have someone else be reasonable; someone else to make the decisions because it’s all too hard.

    It’s why we still have politicians claiming we have to follow other countries on because Australia isn’t (apparently) capable of leading. Which is utter nonsense.

    Australia could easily, easily be a very strong world leader in all manner of sectors. But to do that, you have to lead. Not follow. It’s a lesson we’ve yet to learn.

    Despite all manner of people from various parts of the globe saying “wtf, why aren’t you guys totally dominating?” we just chalk them up as cranks. Maybe they’re actually on to something.

  5. Hi Renai,

    As the person who brought Tim out, I thought it appropriate to comment :) The reason I did this, and keep in mind this has been completely non profit (I look forward to sleping more than 4 hours I can tell you), was to help pull everyone together. Us geeks often talk to geeks, fight with spooks, and make very little impact in the mainstream. To have someone that almost everyone (well, everyone online) can connect with hear the importance of open internet, open data and open government is a powerful catalyst to taking a big step forward in all of these areas.

    I agree it is annoying we still look externally for validation, but this tour is my contribution to help Australia take a big step forward on areas I, you and most of our community really care about.

    I guess what I’m saying is… you’re welcome ;)

    A bunch of his talks will be livestreaming with links on so people should tune if. He’s genuinely a lovely, brilliant geek who has been a genuine pleasure to hang out with this week.


    • “To have someone that almost everyone (well, everyone online) can connect with hear the importance of open internet, open data and open government is a powerful catalyst to taking a big step forward in all of these areas.”

      I appreciate the sentiment, and he’s welcome, but personally I’m not sure Berners-Lee is the right person to comment on those areas either. He’s primarily someone who sets standards in computer science. If you want someone to help encourage openness with respect to the Internet, I’d rather see someone who’s working on much more dynamic, current issues; the chief executive of Reddit, for example, or someone from Wikileaks, or someone from EFF. You know, the organisations who are actually working on openness and transparency online.

      I feel like I’m the ‘generation Y’ in the room in this conversation.

      • OK, so:

        a) most people (mainstream as in most of the public, politicians and public servants) won’t connect with the CE of Reddit. Sorry, but no :)

        b) he is absolutely working on cutting edge open data initiatives, open government initiatives and it a loud, sane and respected voice on open internet.

        You aren’t the genY in the conversation. You are the geek ;) This talk isn’t for you. Come to the talk on Friday morning, it’ll be more up your alley ;)

        • Um, “talk”? I haven’t seen any of his talks. I’m just going off the press releases (CSIRO) and articles (virtually every tech media outlet in Australia) that have been regurgitating his comments.

          • Well perhaps, can I politely suggest, you should actually listen to him speak rather than reading the coverage of what he said if you want to have an informed perspective as to how insightful he is being and the value of bringing him out :) Talk details and what he is speaking about at each event is at

            I’m mildly disappointed at the negative tone of your post if you’ve only media releases as your source. He’s really cool. You’d like him and he has a lot of great things to say to different audiences. I’m putting him in front of public, government, implementers, geeks. It’s actually a lot of fun :)

          • Look, Pia,

            I’m not trying to start a fight with you about bringing TBL to Australia. If you want to do that and showcase him to a bunch of different people, that’s fine, go and do that. I don’t have a problem with it.

            If you want to put an international “expert” like TBL in front of “mainstream” (whatever that means; I assume it means non-technical, whatever that means) people and get him to espouse open government, open internet blah blah, then by all means do so. It’s your life.

            However, I am going to reserve the right to point out that there is a pattern to these kind of visits to Australia and to satirise the media’s stupidity in following the same old lines of coverage with respect to these visits. People like TBL come, express shallow opinions on important local debates (NBN is good, mmmkay, data retention is bad, mmmkay) and then leave, without contributing to the debate at a deeper level or shifting it at all. That is true. It happens. It is happening right now with TBL’s visit.

            I think Vint Cerf (another “creator of the Internet” 20-odd years ago) has done it 2-3 times already in Australia. So has Steve Wozniak. The message is always the same.

            If you want to provide me with evidence that TBL is providing a deeper opinion about our national data retention/NBN/anything debate, then I’ll listen to it. But simply bludgeoning me with a bunch of messages about how someone like TBL can help ‘make an impact on the mainstream’ on these kinds of issues is not helpful.

            You are, by your comments, proving exactly the point that I am making. You seem to feel as though I have something to learn from TBL, when the point I am making is that if you have a message to add to a debate, you should engage at that debate’s level, and not at the surface level which “international experts” like TBL are engaging in Australia.

            For example, I have no doubt that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy nodded politely in the front row when TBL made his comments about data retention. But did those comments have any impact on Conroy? Did Conroy then take those comments back to Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and argue that data retention is a bad idea? Of course not. Because TBL did not go deep enough and so there is no reason for local combatants in that debate to listen to him. The debate is already at a deeper level and we understand more about this area in Australia than he does or would want to.

            If TBL has new ideas, let him present them. Send me a copy of his speeches with the pertinent sections highlighted. I’ll read them. But don’t treat the Australian public or commentators like myself as if we’re imbecilic for not understanding the glorious message of the “founder of the Internet”.

            You may think this a somewhat bitter rant. Well, ask yourself how many international “tech experts” have I personally interviewed/listened to speeches by on their visits to Australia, over the past decade?

            The answer is hundreds. And very few of them had anything to say that had an impact Down Under. I am somewhat of an expert on these kinds of visits. So I don’t bother reporting them any more until they show me that they can make that impact.

            You may recall that this is one the reasons I founded Delimiter in the first place. Because I am tired of Australian ideas and experiences being treated as second-rate.


            “I wanted to found a site that would cover that sector in minute detail. A site that would tell the stories of Australians, for an Australian audience.”

            Wearily yours,


          • An interesting exchange of comments…

            I think what you’re really lamenting, Renai, is a media thing. When expert comment is needed for something, the media approach here seems to be something like this:
            “Hey, we need an expert to comment on Blah”.
            “What about so-and-so down the road?”
            “Nah, nobody in Australia knows anything about this sort of stuff, we need to ask some UK or US expert…”

            It’s the Cultural Cringe writ large.

            There are plenty of locals who not only know as much about the topic as the foreign experts, but they have greater knowledge of local aspects of it, which, as you suggest, are different to much of the world. But the local media routinely ignore them in favour of overseas ‘celebrity experts’.

          • It is partially the media. But it is also partially the celebrity themselves. Some are different, and get a different response. For me, I always come back to the response Bill Gates gave when in Australia on holiday and asked about the NBN:


            ““Yeah, I don’t know enough to really take a side on this issue. It’s definitely good to have a broadband network, and how you get there, whether you use private company competition, like Korea did, or whether you use government policies like some countries are, that’s a tough one.””

            Let’s look at that again: “I don’t really know enough to take a side on this issue.”

            How many people are humble enough to say that, when asked for their opinion? Not many. Not many indeed.

          • Or alternately Gates thinks it’s a great idea, but it’d be heresy of the worst kind for a major US CEO to admit the gov’t could do something as well as, or better than, corporations…

            Then again, he might have just been honest.

          • Best headline of the year, Renai. “Thanks for the platitudes, Sir BL.”

            And you are dead right to highlight this issue.

          • I don’t think you can expect to be sent transcripts, which may not even exist when you could arrange to go to the speeches and do your own reporting, if you are interested. There’s a highly techie one next week at UNSW, closed to the public but they’re offering media passes. That might be more up your alley.

            I’m not saying there’s not a pattern to the mainstream media reporting of visiting internet luminaries, but he’s doing an array of events so there’s probably a deeper story for more specialist reporters such as yourself.

  6. Minor point of usage: when referring to a knight, the title “Sir” always attaches to the given name, never the surname alone.

    So for a John Smith KBE, you can call him “Sir John Smith”, or simply “Sir John”, but never “Sir Smith”.

    Thus your title could instead read “Thank you for the platitudes, Sir Timothy”, or even “Sir Tim”.

    Americans often make this mistake. Since the abolition of imperial honours in Australia, it’s become more common here too.

    Why so? Well, going back many hundreds of years, only the nobility routinely used true surnames, as evidence of a noble family. So you would have Lord Wellington or Lord Sandwich or whatever. The importance of the family name was paramount.

    By contrast, those without a title or noble family might not even have had a true family name in the sense that we would understand it. A knight, not being noble born, might then not have a family name to associate with. So the title “Sir” was affixed to the only name he had – his given name. This elevated Sir Richard or Sir William from common Dick the butcher or Will the swineherd.

  7. Is the problem with what TBL is saying, or with the questions being put to him and reported in the media?

  8. Not sure I’d go as far as “Australians” being at fault as more the “Media”, outside of media releases for conferences and research talks in Australia , vary rarely do the “Media” promote an Australian expert. This is not just a problem in the IT field or was that “Cyber” field

  9. Hey Renai, I can’t find an article, or even a mention in Delimiter about the Semantic Web, a development that will change the web as dramatically as ‘relational’ changed computing.

    The technology is now embedded in both Oracle’s and IBM’s stacks but there are a number of good Australian companies that are growing this business opportunity as well. is a good place to see how some major companies are committing to Semantic Web principles.

    Here is a link that may give some background:

    You may notice that Sir Tim has been leading this charge for over 10 years, in short, he’s as important to our tech world as Gutenberg was in his time.

    The fact our shit-for-brains journalists ask him the wrong questions and he answers them instead of telling them their useless is not a reason to criticise him unless it is for being polite.

    Please shred the journo’s at best you can, but maybe a bit of promotion of Sir Tim’s on-going contribution in the most important developments in computing (first the Web and now the Semantic Web) since ‘relational technology’ is also in order.

  10. I think your pointing the finger at the wrong “person” here Renai (but are right overall), the real fault lies with MSM always asking “personalities” the same tired old questions without actually thinking outside “What would Chris Mitchel want?” box.

  11. I love this article. Really love it. Read the mainstream media, notice that they all report the same sort of garbage when someone like Sir Tim comes visiting (wow, real surprise there), then lament what Sir Tim says based on what you read other people have written instead of actually taking the time to look at what he has said. A+ journalism right there.

    I don’t know what TBL said to the main stream media, and to be perfectly honest I don’t care. I can tell you some of what he said at though (it was streaming online, you didn’t even have to leave your chair to watch it). He spoke about Aaron Schwartz (who he knew from the age of 14) and MIT’s role in what happened, he went into detail as to why he described data retention as dynamite, he talked about HTML5 and where it is headed plus a range of other topics. Stuff actually worth reporting on.

    Please email me directly so we can organise some sort of renumeration for me doing your job for you.

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