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.
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
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.