World Wide Web Celebrates 30th Anniversary

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WWW, Internet © beboy Shutterstock 2012

Back in 1989 a British scientist at a physics laboratory near Geneva invents the world wide web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist working at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, invented something in the late 1980s that is still in use today.

The World Wide Web (WWW) officially celebrates its 30th birthday today, after its creation by Sir Tim to help scientists share information more easily.

However it was only on 23 August 1991 when Sir Tim granted the great unwashed (i.e. the general public) access to the platform. And the rest as they say, is history.

The invention

Sir Tim first proposed the idea of a system which would turn into World Wide Web on 12 March 1989. Remember, the Internet had already been invented by then, thanks to the likes of Vint Cerf and a few other people.

Indeed it is important to remember that the Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. The Internet is a network of connected computers.

The World Wide Web on the other hand concerns the web pages located on this network of computers.

Sir Tim explained that he invested the Web because scientists at CERN were finding it difficult to share information.

“Well, I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it,” said Sir Tim. “Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. So finding out how things worked was really difficult. Often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee.”

“Because people at CERN came from universities all over the world, they brought with them all types of computers,” he added. “Not just Unix, Mac and PC: there were all kinds of big mainframe computer and medium sized computers running all sorts of software.”

“I actually wrote some programs to take information from one system and convert it so it could be inserted into another system,” he said. “More than once. And when you are a programmer, and you solve one problem and then you solve one that’s very similar, you often think, ‘Isn’t there a better way? Can’t we just fix this problem for good?’ That became ‘Can’t we convert every information system so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read?’ And that became the WWW.”

Current state

But 30 years later Sir Tim is growing increasingly concerned that his creation is being used in a bad way.

Indeed, Sir Tim reportedly said that World Wide Web needs to rediscover its strengths and grow into maturity.

Speaking to reporters at CERN, Sir Tim was quoted by Reuters as saying that users of the web had found it “not so pretty” recently.

“They are all stepping back, suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections, realising that this web thing that they thought was that cool is actually not necessarily serving humanity very well,” he reportedly said.

“It seems we don’t finish reeling from one privacy disaster before moving onto the next one,” he added, pointing to worries over whether social networks are supporting democracy.

Web misuse

And in an open letter to mark the anniversary, Sir Tim highlighted his worries about the misuse of the World Wide Web.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Sir Tim highlighted three concerns he has.

Firstly there is the “deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.”

Secondly he is concerned at the “system design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.”

And finally he worries about the “unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”

He said that citizens must hold companies and governments accountable for the commitments they make.

“If we don’t elect politicians who defend a free and open web, if we don’t do our part to foster constructive healthy conversations online,” said Sir Tim.

“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time,” he said. “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.”

The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it,” he said. “It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.2

The legacy

The web is undoubtably hugely important and many people are looking to document its origins for future generations.

Indeed, in 2013, a CERN project recreated the first ever Web page in an effort to preserve history about the web’s early days. The first website went online http://info.cern.ch in August 1991.

CERN first web page and browser

CERN is also thought to be restoring Berners Lee’s actual NeXT computer, which was used to host the world’s first website.

Sir Tim has been an active campaigner for an open and equal web and has been a frequent critic of government snooping. He is now director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which works to develop the Web.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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