The World Wide Web Turns 30. Here’s What It Has Become

30 years of World Wide Web

On March 12, 1989, a Brit named Tim Berners-Lee proposed “a large hypertext database with typed links.” He had a few names for this new concept such as “Information Mesh” and “Mine of Information” before finally settling on the “World Wide Web.” Below is a screenshot of that original proposal that you can read online.

World Wide Web Proposal

As it often happens with great inventions, Tim’s proposal at that time did not impress too many people. In fact, he was thinking of abandoning the project before Mike Sendall, his supervisor at CERN, came to its rescue. Mike encouraged him to work for the global hypertext using an available NeXT machine at CERN in Switzerland. These pioneering efforts eventually led to the world’s first website in 1991.

Fast forward to the present era – it is time to pay our tribute to the World Wide Web as it turns a youngish 30.

The Idea Behind the Old Web

As many of us would recall, in the 1990s and even early 00s the World Wide Web was quite serious about openness. Back then it was a given that the Web should allow users to collaborate across geographical and cultural boundaries. Allowing anyone to contribute content to the Web, and making it equally accessible, was the order of the day. The Internet still belongs to one and all according to the rights of “digital equality,” a principle that has been reaffirmed in 2019 by the World Wide Web foundation. It’s not the property of any single government or private body but is the world’s first decentralized asset after oxygen in the atmosphere.

Web Foundation Motto

However, in our present era, many countries have started imposing restrictions on Web access. While China’s great firewall gets a bad rap, the situation isn’t any better for most other places. In almost half the countries worldwide, you can’t really enjoy the Internet without VPN. Leading online newspapers now impose paywalls on visitors accessing their content, arguably for survival. However, online piracy is on the rise at the same time, and a few countries even have “Pirate” political organizations in their parliaments.

windows10free-piracy

With the onset of GDPR in the European Union, webmasters in many countries immediately started blocking EU visitors from accessing their websites. The era of data silos and walled gardens is in full swing. Currently, the free and open Web faces serious challenges from companies and governments worldwide. Some countries are even considering the idea of an “Internet Kill Switch” with ISPs falling in line. Clearly, the institutions that held the Web together for this long are unable to arrest the decline in online freedoms.

What’s the Solution to Restricted Web?

To mark a way forward in online freedom, it is worth checking out this article Tim Berners-Lee wrote for the Guardian. There are quite a few good ideas that we should not be ignoring, as they come from the man himself.

  • For one, he talks about accountable algorithms. Internet companies often make the excuse that their “algorithms did wrong” when their website violates privacy. With accountable algorithms, there has to be more fairness, audits and social impact measurement.
  • He also talks about political ads disclosing their sources of funding. This can prevent one viewpoint from gaining advantage over many others.
  • Net neutrality is more than just a political statement. The essential principle is that all websites should be treated the same by ISPs. At a policy level, the UK and many other countries have net neutrality proposals but they are still on paper, while the US had one and then eliminated it. Netherlands has a true net neutrality law which puts restrictions on bandwidth throttling by ISPs and makes it illegal to charge users differently based on the services they access. This is a good model for other countries to follow.

If we value Internet freedom, we must champion ideas like these in letter and spirit.

Conclusion

As we mark an important anniversary of a historical event, it is time to reflect on how the Web has changed our lives. We have to preserve the values of Internet freedom for future generations. The very fact that you are reading this page was born out of a farsighted vision of openness. There are many challenges in our aim to return to the era of the older Web. But, as long as the will remains, anything is possible in future.

What do you think could be a real solution to returning to the Web’s original roots? Please let us know in the comments.

5 comments

  1. Good thoughts about net neutrality and to open internet. But how is GDPR seen as negative I can’t imagine this at all. Beside several countries outside EU have no information about the brilliant advantages in GDPR. There is one in which you enjoy amazing protection from data leakage and is now greater trust if you are the internet user.

    As for web companies like Google or Facebook they are going to take responsibility for the consequence of breaking my trust by collecting my personal information without my permission. To that there will be more lawsuits in the future. I do not care for American websites that block me for EU because I will not visit them in any case. I love my privacy and that was the vision of world wide web idea creationists including Tim Berners Lee.

    In that conclusion many other ideas are good but GDPR is one of the solutions for open Internet access that should be number one for other countries outside EU. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your inputs. GDPR is not bad at all. It only says that many EU users got banned by websites in other countries at the time of its implementation.

  2. When there is money and/or corporate interests involved, morals and fairness get thrown out the window. For example, as soon as the human genome was mapped. companies started copyrighting and patenting individual genes. Had that practice continued, our bodies would have wound up being owned by corporations.

    As soon as a new invention/discovery is released into the wild, it is bastardized, corrupted, subverted and used in ways that its creator never intended. Internet and the World Wide Web has been taken over and monetized by corporations. And since the Golden Rule states that whoever has the gold makes the rules, there ain’t no way that the Internet will ever get back to the warm fuzziness of the 1990s.

    1. That’s surely one way of looking at it. Indeed it may appear that the fight for open Internet is a losing battle given the financial muscle of the corporations. Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft together make more money than the GDP of a vast majority of countries. But IBM was tops for a long while they are barely having any impact nowadays. The top position is never secure for anyone. Moreover concerns such as net neutrality affect the corporations as much as they do the average users.

      Given the recent spate of lawsuits against big corporations, they are bound to fall in line and in the good books of policymakers. Twitter and Jack Dorsey are under investigation in India for not doing enough to clamp down on fake news trends considering a major election is going on. Almost all EU countries are fighting Google and Facebook for their data retention policies and they will eventually fall in line. Their billions of dollars are not going to insulate them forever.

      Basically you need some really good politicians who think above reelection prospects to enforce the policies that will govern good conduct. It’s the power of the vote which can actually translate into winning the battle for open Web. There just has to be the right candidate to tackle these issues head on.

      Then there are Internet rights activists worldwide.

      1. “But IBM was tops for a long while they are barely having any impact nowadays.”
        Do we want to put up with the rapaciousness of Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft for the next 50-70 years? Because that is how long Big Blue was dominant.

        “Given the recent spate of lawsuits against big corporations”
        It may be a long time before those suits reach resolution, if they ever do. As the saying goes “The wheels of justice grind on very slowly”. US filed an anti-trust lawsuit against IBM in 1969. The suit was finally dismissed in 1981 with no resolution. In 1982, AT&T was broken up into 8 parts. Today, instead of having just one large corporation (AT&T), we have four – AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Cincinnati Bell. While the letter of the law was satisfied in breaking up a monopoly, the spirit of the law was not satisfied because an oligopoly was created.

        “Basically you need some really good politicians who think above reelection prospects to enforce the policies that will govern good conduct.”
        If we had those, we would not be in the pickle we are in right now. It is an illusion and wishful thinking that politicians represent the interests of the voters. They represent the interests of their political contributors. The bigger the contribution, the better the representation. If an individual or a small company pulled even only some the crap Zuckerberg and Facebook have pulled, the individual would be doing major time and the company would be driven out of business.

        “There just has to be the right candidate to tackle these issues head on.”
        That only happens in books. Such a candidate would have to have fortitude, intestinal and otherwise, to oppose the combined corporate interest. In addition, such a candidate would have to fight the other legislators. What we need is hundreds of such candidates. It is impossible for one individual to affect the kind of changes necessary.

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