World wide web at 30: Inventor Tim Berners-Lee wants a better web

12 Mar 2019

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Image: drserg/Depositphotos

The web should be for everyone, Berners-Lee urges.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitting his proposal for an information management system that was to underpin what we know today as the world wide web.

His proposal to marry hypertext with transmission control protocol (TCP) has become the basis for everything we hold dear online today and for much of the way the world functions – the search engines, the social networks, the e-commerce, the cloud, the apps, the smartphones, the games, the entertainment, you name it.

‘If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web’

On 12 March 1989, Berners-Lee was a computer scientist working at CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire).

At the time, most of the technologies or ideas that were to form the foundation of the web had existed, but no one had thought to join them up. “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and domain name system ideas – and ta-da! The world wide web,” he recalled in 2008.

His boss at the time, Mike Sendall, called Berners-Lee’s idea “vague but interesting” and the NeXT computer that he was working on became the world’s first web server.

Zoom forward 30 years and entire industries, careers and lives have been shaped or distorted by the world wide web.

WWW-worried for the future

From the start, Berners-Lee has been adamant that the web is for everyone and tweeted as much to the world at the Olympic Games in London in 2012 using a vintage NeXT computer.

Today (12 March), 30 years after he submitted his initial paper, Berners-Lee expressed his concern for the future of the web in an open letter from the Web Foundation.

While he is happy that half of the world’s population is now online, it is the other half he is worried about.

Berners-Lee also expressed delight that the web is now the cornerstone for communication and education, giving marginalised groups a voice and making daily lives easier. However, he lamented that it has also become a breeding ground for scammers, crime and the spread of hatred.

“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But, given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Berners-Lee cited three sources of dysfunction affecting the web today: deliberate, malicious intent that involves state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour and online harassment; system design where user value is sacrificed for ad-based revenue models that commercially reward the spread of misinformation; and the unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as polarised debate.

“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline. The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change[s] incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones, or tweak those we already have.

“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.”

Contract for the Web

The web, Berners-Lee reasons, is too important to the world right now, and a kind of declaration of human rights for the web is needed, in the same way that new frontiers were formed for the common good such as the Law of the Sea and the Outer Space Treaty.

Such a declaration – a new Contract for the Web – was revealed in Lisbon at the Web Summit last year and Berners-Lee called on all governments, companies and citizens to contribute with a view for a result later this year.

Berners-Lee urged governments to translate laws and regulations for the digital age, and for companies to ensure that their pursuit of profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety.

“Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind. This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit.”

Berners-Lee called on citizens to hold companies and governments accountable for the commitments they make, and only elect politicians who will defend a free and open web.

“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time. Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.”

Crucially, Berners-Lee called for the upcoming Contract for the Web to be a kind of guiding star that must also be flexible enough to adapt to the pace of technology.

“It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.

“The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Image: drserg/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years