Sir Tim Berners-Lee, joint inventor of the World Wide Web, marks the 30th anniversary of his original proposition for an ‘information management system’ (which led to underpin the internet) with a special open letter.
‘Vague But Exciting’
But first, a brief history (of the web). Amazingly, Berners-Lee’s original proposal was dubbed ‘vague but exciting’ by boss, Mike Sendall, at CERN. His memo in 1989 suggested a system whereby physicists at the centre could share ‘general information about accelerators and experiments’.
“Many of the discussions of the future at Cern and the LHC era end with the question: ‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’” wrote Berners-Lee. “This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”
Initially called ‘Mesh’, the system would go on to combine hypertext with distributed architecture which stored documents on multiple servers, controlled by different actors and completely interconnected. However, it wasn’t until a year later that Berners-Lee began coding and re-named his bootstrapped project – World Wide Web. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hello World – An Open Letter
And what an incredible 30 years of innovation is has been. It’s fair to say that not even the staunchest supporter of the World Wide Web, at least in the early days, could have predicted the utterly transformational effect the internet would have on everyday life. From smartphones through to healthcare and social media, the invention has touched almost every human being on the planet. To mark this incredible moment in human history, Sir Tim publishes an open letter every year.
This year’s letter, given the importance of the anniversary, is broader in scope than most – and expresses a rare level of concern about the direction in which the web is moving.
“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier,” he writes, “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.
“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.”
Three Areas of Change
Sir Tim goes on to identify three key areas, or categories, that he feels the public and legislators should focus on to protect all that is good about the internet, and limit the negative consequences of the interconnected technology.
- Malicious attacks and intent – such as state-sponsored hacks, cyber attacks, criminality and online abuse.
- Systems that manipulate the user – including ad-based revenue models that reward clickbait or spoil the online experience.
- Online discourse – acknowledging the pandora’s box of polarised opinion and hate that is incubated online.
“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimize this behaviour, just as we have always done offline,”
“The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.”
And on the third category he warns against “simplistic narratives”. “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 suggests.
Contract for the Web
Building on last year’s proposals, Sir Tim launched a set of core principles called a ‘Contract for the Web’. It sought to bring together governments, the private sector and global citizens to work together to tackle all of the problems faced online. This year’s letter references the progress of this initiative, with hopes for a meaningful result later this year.
None of us (or very few at least!) can imagine life before the internet. We use it so ubiquitously. It permeates almost every aspect of our lives. And yet we give such little thought to the forces, corporations and governments looking to limit, control, monitor and subvert our actions online.
The advent of cryptographically secure money has all been made possible by the incredible work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other key contributors to the Web. What will the next 30 years bring?