Some 25 years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his proposal, the challenge is to protect rights to privacy and freedom of opinion online
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, speaks at a press conference on human rights at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, last month.
If the internet is the road system for the digital world, then the world wide web is the car – the tool we use daily for work and play. It seems almost impossible to remember what unconnected life was like; some of us are old enough to remember living without the web, old enough to have used typewriters at university, microfiches in the school library and can recall the first mention of something called “Hotmail”.
It is nearly 25 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote his initial proposal for a distributed information system based on hypertext, in March 1989. “Vague, but exciting,” was how supervisor Mike Sendall greeted the idea, proposed to help connect the work of several thousand atom-smashing scientists, researchers and administrators at Cern – the European home of nuclear research and the large hadron collider.
The plan was a non-linear organisation system based on hypertext –quite the hot topic in late 80s computing circles – that would improve on the previous system that let documents be stored and printed. “A linked system,” wrote Berners-Lee, “would allow one to browse through concepts, documents, systems and authors, also allowing references between documents to be stored.”
“The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.”
Berners-Lee, with the help of colleague Robert Cailliau, later formalised the proposal and extended its ambitions to be a network for the world – the world wide web. By the end of 1990 Berners-Lee had put together the first server and web pages, and the first web browser for the NeXT operating system – this was the computer company founded by Steve Jobs during his interregnum from Apple. Another Cern colleague Nicola Pellow wrote a generic browser for other operating systems, and the first public page was published on 6 August 1991 at info.cern.ch. Quite what scale of “critical threshold” Berners-Lee had in mind for the nascent project was not clear, but he could never have imagined the diversity, the ubiquity and the functionality of the web today in all the myriad forms we know.
Berners-Lee has been careful to credit decades of work by previous engineers who laid the foundations for the web. He has previously spoken out against Facebook and others for business models that rely on capturing information and keeping it in silos, away from the rest of the web, and has been outspoken in condemning government surveillance post the Edward Snowden affair.
In the public debate following those revelations, it has been argued that perhaps commercialisation and government control are inevitable for such a critical network at a global scale. Should we just accept that most of the public web, and the internet on which it runs, has reached a level of maturity where ownership and control becomes inevitable?
Berners-Lee thinks not, and has argued for the preservation of the web as a democratic tool. “Bold steps,” he said in response to Snowden, “are needed to protect our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and association online.”
This ideology will only become even more critical as the web faces its next 25 years of commercial experimentation, as well as political influence and cyberwarfare. The web itself will mature into predictive tools and artificial intelligence, and an immersive, hyper-connected web in which seams of data run through every part of our personal, professional and physical lives, of the objects around us and the organisations in which we work. It is a future, Berners-Lee hopes, when that data is open and democratic.
“Close to the principle of universality is that of decentralisation, which means that no permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure,” he wrote last year. “This has been critical to the web’s growth and is critical to its future.”
Beyond open data and the fast being-realised semantic web, he is too wise to predict the direction the web will take, limited only by our imaginations. “If we end up building all the things I can imagine we will have failed,” he once said. A distributed network is a democratic system, where information and power are equally distributed. Had he determined to patent and commercialise his idea from the outset, market forces would have inspired others to do the same, creating a network of competing, smaller webs, he has said.
“We need to be able to find ways of governing ourselves in peace,” he told the SXSW festival last year. “We need to be able to find ways of coming to agreements with people in other countries, in other cultures, about what we are going to do with our planet and how we are going to solve global warming. For that, we need a very strong democracy. Democracy involves people being informed, being able to communicate, being able to hold each other accountable. And all that absolutely depends on the neutral internet.”
The principle of one global, democratic communication network seems a reality that is slipping through our fingers. Curiously, by gifting the web to the world he has also retained an almost spiritual ownership of it.
Perhaps the real celebration should be for Berners-Lee’s uncommon principle of not commercialising his invention by default; among all the noise and hyperbole and distraction of the common web, that is a rare and noble thing. And worth defending.
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