Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has spoken out in favour of the Guardian’s reporting of the surveillance programs instituted by the NSA and GCHQ, adding that whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden, are protectors of "society's interests".
The comments, disclosed to the Guardian, came after MPs on the intelligence and security committee (ISC) were criticised for failing to hold spy chiefs properly to account, following its first ever public hearing on Thursday.
Following the hearing, a group of 28 Tory MPs, including Julian Smith and former colonels Bob Stewart and Patrick Mercer, wrote a letter to the newspaper asking the editor not to report on further leaks without consultation as earlier articles had already enabled terrorists to alter their approach, making the country less safe.
However, the British scientists, who invented the web in 1989, took an opposing view, heralding the "important role" of the Guardian, while condemning Britain and America's intelligence apparatus, which he accused of weakening online security.
Speaking to the Guardian, he said: "Whistleblowers, and responsible media outlets that work with them, play an important role. We need powerful agencies to combat criminal activity online - but any powerful agency needs checks and balances, and based on recent revelations it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed."
"Here is where whistleblowing and responsible reporting can step in to protect society's interests," he said, adding: "Civilisation has to a certain extent depended on whistleblowers, and therefore you have to protect them."
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Sir Tim said that while he had anticipated many of the surveillance activities that have been exposed, he "didn't realise it would be so big". He criticised GCHQ and America's National Security Agency (NSA) for cracking online encryption, which protects millions of users' data, saying it would weaken online security and benefit criminal gangs and hostile states.
The Tory MPs who penned a letter to the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, have asked him to consult the Government or security services before publishing any further stories based on the documents, to fully understand the security implications. They also called on the newspaper to inform the Government and intelligence services of the precise nature of the information it has shared with other journalists and bloggers and the identities of those to whom it has passed information.
In their letter, the MPs said that publishing the leaked information in such detail "runs the risk of compromising the vital work of the institutions, processes and people who protect the safety of this country". They asked the newspaper to accept that it shares responsibility for the safety of UK citizens and to "act accordingly" with its stories, to discuss with the intelligence services the implications for national security that publication would have, and to be explicit about any information it has released that could threaten the safety of intelligence services personnel.
Highlighting the security risks that might occur if information intended for other journalists fell into the hands of terrorists or "hostile foreign powers", the MPs asked the Guardian to be open with the Government and security agencies about exactly what information it had shared, and with whom.
They said: "We are asking you to do no more than to share with our intelligence services, the very people who protect the freedoms which the Guardian champions, that which you have already shared freely with international bloggers and journalists who have no concept of the UK national interest."
In his reply to Smith tonight, Rusbridger wrote: "Let me reassure you that we continue to consult with both the security services and the Government on our reporting. We have in fact consulted with the White House, Downing Street, the intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic and/or the DA Notice system on every story but one that we have published.
"We have, as they would confirm, altered several stories after listening to their concerns and omitted many details. Some of the authorities have privately thanked us for maintaining this dialogue, which they say they find helpful. It is our intention to continue this approach."
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He added: "Neither we nor any of our journalistic partners have published the identities of any personnel from the intelligence community, a point accepted and welcomed by the relevant agencies." The Guardian's editor went on: "I urge you and colleagues to consider one final point. Snowden handed these documents to newspapers, who have responsibly edited them after prolonged and regular discussions with the relevant authorities.
"Were newspapers to be injuncted, criminalised or inhibited from reporting on such matters (as has been proposed by some MPs and intelligence officials), it is easy to predict what the next Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning would do. They would, in all probability, bypass newspapers and publish the material directly on to the web, with far more serious consequences."