WWW turns 30: How the World Was One

HOW FAST CAN HUMANITY OUTGROW ITS ‘DIGITAL ADOLESCENCE’?

The 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web was marked in mid-March 2019 amid intense debates on the pros and cons of this invention that has transformed how we work, live and play. One thing is certain: the web is not going away. So humanity has to optimise its benefits while containing the worst abuses. Historically, we have had to do similar balancing with fire, the wheel, the internal combustion engine and a range of other essential innovations.

Pervasive as it now seems (more than half of humanity was online by end-2018), the web has been around for only about a generation. It was in March 1989 that young British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee first came up with the idea of electronically linking information scattered around in various computers.

His innovation arose from frustration. At the time, he was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the world’s largest physics lab located in a suburb of Geneva. Scientists from many countries conducted multiple research projects, generating a great deal of information. This was being stored on multiple and often incompatible computers – and it was a struggle to locate old data and documents.

Berners-Lee proposed a solution to this problem. By then, millions of computers were already being connected together through the internet (that originated in the 1960s). He realised that these machines could share information by using a then new technology called hypertext.

He wrote it up as a scientific proposal called “Information Management: A Proposal”. It was dated 12 March 1989. Although his managers were not immediately impressed, he was allowed to pursue the project.

By October of 1990, Berners-Lee had written the coding of the three fundamental technologies that lay the foundation of today’s web: HTML, the language for the web; URL, which is an “address” unique to each resource on the web; and HTTP, which allows linked resources to be retrieved from anywhere on the web.

By end-1990, the first web page was served on the open internet, and in 1991, people outside of CERN were invited to join the new web community. The first website in the world was dedicated to the World Wide Web project itself and was placed online on 6 August 1991. It carried information about hypertext, technical details for creating your own webpage, and an explanation on how to search the web. In 2013, CERN restored this first-ever website located at info.cern.ch.

‘INTERNET’ AND ‘WEB’ ARE USED INTERCHANGEABLY, BUT THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING. THEY ARE LINKED, BUT SEPARATE PHENOMENA

FREE AND OPEN WEB
The terms ‘internet’ and ‘web’ are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. They are linked, but separate phenomena – the web being the popular end of a complex cyber ecosystem.

One of the ‘fathers of the internet’, American computer scientist Vint Cerf, explains the difference: “The internet is the underlying networking infrastructure that links billions of computers all around the world. The World Wide Web is an application that sits on top of the basic internet infrastructure. The two are simply layered on top of each other. What you’ll experience of the internet, for the most part, is through the World Wide Web.”

It was the web that brought the internet within ordinary people’s reach. Until then, it was accessible only to those working in military or academic positions in the US and Europe.

As the web grew and expanded in the 1990s, Berners-Lee understood that to realise its true potential, anyone, anywhere in the world should be able to use it without having to pay a fee or ask for permission.

As he explains, “Had the technology been proprietary and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

So he and other web pioneers ensured that CERN agreed to make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis, forever.

“This decision was announced in April 1993, and sparked a global wave of creativity, collaboration and innovation never seen before. In 2003, the companies developing new web standards committed to a Royalty Free Policy for their work,” says the website of the World Wide Web Foundation, also known as the Web Foundation, an international non-profit organisation advocating for a free and open web that Berners-Lee set up in 2009 (https://webfoundation.org).

Earlier, in 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international technical community devoted to developing open web standards (https://www.w3.org/).

TAKING STOCK
Three decades on, the ‘father of the web’ keeps studying the web’s evolutionary trends and advocating for a better web. Knighted in 2004, he is a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Speaking at a CERN event in March 2019 to mark the web’s 30th anniversary, he lamented that democracy and privacy are now seriously threatened by the web’s rampant misuse.

“They are all stepping back, suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections, realising that this web thing that they thought was that cool is actually not necessarily serving humanity very well,” he said.

To mark the 30th anniversary, Berners-Lee also wrote an open letter reflecting on the state of the internet. Given his stature, it received global media attention that is usually reserved for Silicon Valley’s billionaire technopreneurs.

In the letter, he noted that, while the web has created many new opportunities, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier, “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.

Yet, he remained cautiously optimistic and hopeful. “If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web. It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.”

SOURCES OF DYSFUNCTION
As the planetary ‘experiment’ of the web keeps evolving, governments, corporations and other users are struggling to keep up with the march of technology, and its socio-cultural and political consequences.

The early idealism that some of us promoted – of the web as a new space for liberal thinking and progressive action – has given way to a much harsher reality. Inevitable, perhaps, when more people came online. Today, the web is a reflection of the physical or offline world, mirroring (and sometimes amplifying) the latter’s many disparities and complexities.

In his open letter, Berners-Lee identified the following three ‘sources of dysfunction’ that affect today’s web:
• Deliberate, malicious intent such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
• System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
• Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

While social media bashing has become fashionable, Berners-Lee urged for a more measured response.

“You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community,” he said.

GOVERNMENTS, CORPORATIONS AND OTHER USERS ARE STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP WITH THE MARCH OF TECHNOLOGY, AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

GLOBAL CHALLENGE
He recalls how, at pivotal moments in recent history, previous generations stepped up to work out collective solutions to unprecedented new challenges. As examples, he cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Law of the Sea (1982).

All these were done under the auspices of the United Nations, but what inter-governmental model – where only governments have full decision-making powers – will not work for the web.

By design, the internet has no central command. While its digital infrastructure and technical functions are based on universally agreed technical standards, there is no single government, corporation or UN agency that exercises control over the whole ecosystem.

That is not as anarchic as it might seem at first glance. From early days, decisions about internet-related matters have involved governments, tech companies, civil society groups and the academic community – all making decisions together for the greater good. This is known as the multi-stakeholder approach.

“The challenge is to manage the web in an open way: not too much bureaucracy, not subject to political or commercial pressures,” says its founder. He thinks the best is yet to come.