The founder of the world wide web has sounded a warning about the dangers posed by governments intent on increasing the level of monitoring and filtering of the online activity of its citizens.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee said that while it was important to fight serious organised crime and for a state to defend itself against cyber attack, there were enormous negatives associated with excessive government oversight of the internet.
That [stored] information is so dangerous, you have to think of it as dynamite.
"The whole thing seems to me fraught with massive dangers and I don't think it's a good idea," he said in Sydney on Tuesday in reply to a question about the Australian government's data retention plan.
Red flag ... Sir Tim Berners-Lee (right) and Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy in Sydney on Tuesday. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Sir Tim was speaking at the launch of the CSIRO's $40 million Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, a research facility focused on facilitating the growth of the digital economy and exploiting the full potential of the National Broadband Network.
The data retention proposal is part of the federal government's overhaul of national security measures and would require internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunication carriers to store the internet history of all Australians for at least two years.
"That [stored] information is so dangerous, you have to think of it as dynamite," he said.
Instead of nabbing "serious criminals", such a process would only snare people who had taken out too many library books, he said.
While it was possible to set up a watchdog to ensure there was no overstepping the mark, he was not yet aware of any government that had successfully introduced a foolproof system of checks and balances.
Sir Tim, who is visiting Australia for the first time in 15 years, also raised a red flag about web filtering.
"I have a worry about a government that is liable to take too much control; maybe to spy, maybe to block," he said. "So beware of a government that has the ability to control what you see on the web."
His comments were made at the same event where the Communication Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, the architect of a controversial mandatory internet filtering plan, had earlier spoken.
The plan, which would have required every Australian ISP to block overseas-hosted "refused classification" material as identified by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, was officially shelved in November after several years of acrimonious debate.
"I think that every citizenry has to look at every government and make sure it's behaving," he said later in an interview. "That applies to Australia as well as other places and I wouldn't say that Australia's practices are any worse."
The CSIRO Digital Productivity and Services Flagship is a centre of excellence that will assist the public and private sectors to develop and deliver more efficient and innovative digitally-enhanced services by harnessing data.
While Sir Tim encouraged the public sector the open up and share more of its information and data, he was circumspect with his support for rogue information gatherers such as Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organisation.
"In some cases whistleblowing has been really important in showing up problems with big companies or big countries, [especially with] oppressive governments," he said.
"In other cases, people have taken data which are confidential for good reason and whose release is going to hurt people."
Sir Tim invented the world wide web while working at a research facility in Europe in 1989. He is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, a body which oversees the web's continued development and holds a senior research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.