The Virtual Revolution: The Cost of Free

(Source BBC Website)

The Virtual Revolution is a British television documentary first aired on BBC Two 30th January 2010. Dr. Aleks Krotoski is an Emmy, BAFTA, and Radio Academy Award-winning Journalist, with a background in psychology and technology. This four-part series was a huge undertaking where Dr. Krotoski(“The Cost of Free, The Virtual Revolution – BBC Two”) looks at how all our lives have been shaped and reshaped by the invention back in 1989 of the World Wide Web. In the documentary, Dr. Krotoski is accompanied on her travels in part by the Web’s inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It is a far-reaching documentary with Aleks speaking to famous names from the World Wide Web such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Al Gore and Stephen Fry. She charts the rise of blogs, YouTube and Wikipedia and explores the question, is the Web is actually living up to its original promise.

(Source BBC Website)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web in March 1989 and gave it to the world. Back in March 2017 on the 28th anniversary of its creation, he outlined in an interview with The Guardian, that he originally “imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”(Berners-Lee)

Image of original proposal for World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee Original proposal of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee

Just over a decade after the Web’s launch, Lawrence Lessig outlined in his book “The Future of ideas. The Fate of the Commons in a connected world”, the remarkable growth in creativity and innovation that this launch brought with it. Lessig outlined very eloquently the opening up of a whole new world of promise following the invention of this extraordinary platform of the World Wide Web. He enthusiastically praises the open source world created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. “All around us are the consequences of the most significant technological, and hence cultural, revolution in generations. This revolution has produced the most powerful and diverse spur to innovation of any in modern times.”(Lessig_FOI.Pdf)

Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and from his background in Law very strongly argues that large corporations have manipulated the law for their own purpose. These powerful institutions have established themselves as gatekeepers of the net.  “changes in the architecture of the Internet—both legal and technical—are sapping the Internet of this power. Fueled by a bias in favor of control, pushed by those whose financial interests favor control, our social and political institutions are ratifying changes in the Internet that will re-establish control and, in turn, reduce innovation on the Internet and in society generally.”(Lessig_FOI.Pdf)  Lessig outlines in his book that the expansion of property rights and copyright law into the area of creative intellectual property has brought significant negative side effects to the open and free platform originally imagined by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Lawrence Lessig in 2001 and nearly a decade later, Dr. Aleks Krotoski, both outline the clash between freedom that the technology of the World Wide Web offers and our human unbending attachment to property and our desire for profit and control.

In the documentary, “The Virtual Revolution – the cost of free”, Dr. Aleks Krotoski “tells the story of a silent revolution, that effects every person on the planet. We have become complicit in a deal that is reshaping our world.” Lessig had already highlighted this silent revolution in 2001, “The freedom that is my focus here is the creativity and innovation that marked the early Internet… This freedom has been lost. With scarcely anyone even noticing.” (Lessig_FOI.Pdf pgvii)

“The World Wide Web offers unprecedented free access to information.” But what exactly does Free mean? This adjective Free is used in two ways. “Gratis is cost-free, it means free to read. Libre is cost-free & permission free, it means free to use.” (Suber & Harnad 2008).  We are aware that everyday web use is overwhelmingly free.  One of the biggest internet companies whose business model and platforms dominate the web is Google. We search on Google, we share photographs on Flickr, we send and receive emails, get directions using Google maps, read the news, read blogs, connect with friends. It feels like it is free! Where in fact all this is funded by a very sophisticated and clearly very lucrative advertising model. As Dr. Krotoski highlights in the documentary, there is an individual, moral and social cost of free.

We have become very attached to Google. Google helps make sense of the World Wide Web.  Here Google is operating true to the original ethos of Sir Tim Berner-Lee’s free web. But, every time we use Google we are helping them make money! Google is the biggest money-making machine in history. Free is an allusion. Google uses the information we provide, gathers information on the searches we carry out to sell highly targeted advertising. Google gather and store information on “Things that make you, you” (Google, 2017). There is free access to information, this touches anyone who has access to the internet. But we are paying for that free access with a very precious commodity, personal and intimate information about ourselves. Our thoughts, ideas, desires expressed on the web are to paraphrase Dr. Krotoski being traced, tracked and trailed in pursuit of profit.

On the 12th March 2017, Tim Berners-Lee writes for The Guardian “I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it.”

“ We’ve lost control of our personal data

It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.”(Berners-Lee)


In the 28yrs that have followed the creation of the World Wide Web, we have been given an intriguing insight into the open source movement and it has opened up a world of promise. But also in that time from very early on we have been warned that very worrying trends were emerging and this new technological infrastructure of the Internet was changing from its original purpose of being “a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all.”(Berners-Lee)

Lawrence Lessig’s book teaches us a lot about ourselves. Dr. Aleks Krotowski’s documentary teaches us a lot about the relationship between the world of commerce on the web and us the consumer and our notions of privacy and personal space. Tim Berners-Lee just a few months ago puts out a call to action “It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”(Berners-Lee)

Solutions to this will not be simple. Awareness, information, and knowledge of what is happening are key. The is a great resource here to keep abreast of news. I agree Freedom and open access is key to innovation, creativity, and development, we know that there is a cost of production involved. The subject we need to look at is Control. Financial interests favour control. We need a response to the concept of Control.

The Economist. (Published on Apr 13, 2017)


Berners-Lee, Tim. “I Invented the Web. Here Are Three Things We Need to Change to Save It | Tim Berners-Lee.” The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2017.,

Lessig_FOI.Pdf. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

“The Cost of Free, The Virtual Revolution – BBC Two.” BBC, Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

Web References:

Lawrence Lessig:  The Future of Ideas::: The Future of Ideas ::: Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

YouTube Video: The Economist “The internet is inaccessible to 60% of the world’s population. Tim Berners-Lee the web’s inventor has decided to change this.”