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Happy 25th birthday to the World Wide Web. What comes next?

12 March 2014

On this day in 1989, the World Wide Web was born. Tim Berners-Lee, a contractor at CERN, published a paper called ‘Information Management: A Proposal‘. Although it’s tricky to pin down exactly how and when the Internet was formed, Berners-Lee’s concept of a global system of interlinked pages was key. It wasn’t until a year later when Berners-Lee published a more formal paper, along with the necessary tools to create and host web pages, that the project took the name and form — WorldWideWeb.

Since then, the WWW has changed the world in a way that Berners-Lee never predicted. Instead of listing platitudes about all the wonderful things the web has done, it’s easier to think about what would be missing without that paper. You wouldn’t be reading this article for a start; The Spectator certainly wouldn’t have 1.3 million readers every month. Nor would half of you be reading this on a smartphone. As long as you have a phone signal, you can contact anyone in the world within seconds and access almost unlimited volumes of information. None of this would be possible without interlinked pages.

Berners-Lee has made the world a smaller place, yet what comes next? No company or organisation has ever controlled the Internet — although plenty would love to. A variety of different parties dictate its future direction. This is both a strength and a weakness, as the two major threats to the Internet exist – keeping the web open to all, and privacy – demonstrate.

Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1993

Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1993

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At present, every web user has the same access to every service, every website at the same speed. But proposals for a multi-tiered system won’t go away; this report from BuzzFeed last year gives a good account of how the land currently lies. To combat this threat, Tim Berners-Lee has seized upon today’s anniversary, telling the Guardian that we need ‘an online Magna Carta’ – a ‘bill of rights’ to ensure that the open and free principles remain intact:

‘Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it’

An online bill of rights could also address the other great concern — privacy and government snooping. The Guardian’s excellent expose of the NSA’s worst practices has revealed that it’s possible to infringe people’s rights online with minimal fuss. Berners-Lee thinks that something needs to be done:

‘These issues have crept up on us. Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years’

Achieving this will not be easy. The lack of a central command structure has, undoubtedly, been the web’s greatest asset, meaning that no one can control its direction. But it also makes rallying the online community together very tricky — even for the man who is responsible for one of the twentieth century’s most important inventions.

NB: there are five interlinked pages on this blog

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  • telemachus

    The big big worry is that Google will begin to use its algorithms to protect the big players from new entrants
    You can bet your life that Facebook are working night and day to preclude a new competing facebook
    Was it or was it not worrying that it recently hoovered up WhatsApp
    All now have had the experience of Facebook dredging confidential information on themselves from the Facebook of others
    The US congress alone have the power to do a Standard Oil on these behemoths
    Meanwhile Coffee House is an excellent vehicle to get across the politics of reason

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …what is this “facebook” you speak of, comrade?

      • Alexsandr

        yes. people talk as if these sites (ar$ebook and tw@tter) have importance. Well I know if someone I don’t know has been to the toilet. How did I manage before?
        They are a childish fad, no more. It would help if the BBC didn’t plug them every 5 minutes, though.

        • telemachus

          You are naive
          Why is there a verb to “Google”
          Virtually every organisation now has moved to contact via Facebook
          They dominate more day by day and need to be broken up
          As does the dominance of Android(Google) on our phones

          • Alexsandr

            tech firms come and go
            remember IBM, Yahoo, Lotus, Nokia, Netscape, Psion.
            not sure android is dominant. I think windoze and iphones are big too.
            And you have left out the biggest one of all that writes the most dodgy code -Microsoft.

            • telemachus

              No tech firms before have controlled our daily lives as Facebook and Google are almost doing
              IBM and Nokia were our servants to be discarded and were
              Google has our soul

              • Makroon

                Like it’s predecessors, Google is growing steadily more inefficient and out-of-touch. Why not help it along to obsolescence by using an alternative ?

              • Baron

                Google, Facebook and the others will go the way IBM and the other lot Alexandr mentions went.

                • telemachus

                  Not before they have commandeered your soul

              • La Fold

                Oh custard and jellymachus, the buses dont go where you live do they love?

              • Colonel Mustard

                Labour has your soul. That doesn’t bother me but they want mine and everyone else’s too.

            • Mr Creosote

              i-phones – the world’s most successful contraceptive. That Jonny Ive has got a lot to answer for!

          • Colonel Mustard

            Your attempt to dominate Coffee House needs to be broken up, especially as you represent a calculated party political agenda rather than the free comment of an individual.

    • Colonel Mustard

      You are one to talk about “dredging confidential information” as you selectively stalk commentators here and attempt to disclose alleged personal details about them. I suggest that you acquaint yourself with current case law concerning online identity.

    • Makroon

      The US is the dominant power, and sees internet domination/monopoly as a “strategic resource”, China will try to compete, but English is the global language. Facts of life.

  • Colonel Mustard

    What comes next? Increasingly desperate government attempts to control, regulate and censor it I should think.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Yes, and that was the importance of Leveson, getting that authoritarian camel’s nose stuffed up under that tent, before the legacy media disappeared forever and the opportunity was lost.

    • Makroon

      The notion that the world’s ‘secret security services’ would feel themselves bound by some Magna Carta/Bill of Rights is rather ridiculous.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Manga Cartagena, did she die in fain?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Care to comment, Spectator?

  • In2minds

    “The Guardian’s excellent expose of the NSA…….” – It’s not just the NSA our government also has questions to answer.

  • ganef_returns

    We should all be truly grateful to this man for his creation of the world wide web. And he gave it to us for free!

    • robbydot

      If anyone deserved a knighthood it’s this man.

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