WWW @ 30: Why the Web needs to remain open

While the internet existed way before the Worldwide Web (WWW), the web changed everything.

Its success has as much to do with the simplicity of using an HTTP web browser, as the fact that it was put into the public domain and the timing of its invention.

A lesson from the past

During the 1980s the TCP/IP protocol evolved to the point where basic command line tools could be used by Unix users and admins to share documents between networked computers.

The internet was predominately used in academia. In the commercial space, proprietary email services offered walled gardens, only available to subscribers. But in 1988, thanks to Vint Cerf, the internet was opened to commercial email services. This opened up the internet to everyone, and laid the foundations for a global communications network connecting HTTPD web servers to users’ HTTP web browsers.

In his March 1989 Information Management: A Proposal paper, Sir Tim Berners-Lee describes the original premise for the WWW as an approach to enable the people at Cern to share documents easily.

While it started at Cern, within three years, the WWW and the HTTP protocol was in the public domain. Then it took off.

No one owns the web

There have been plenty of attempts to make the web proprietary, but in its purest form, the WWW has remained free and open. However, the web represents many more things today compared to 30 years ago. It is the basis of social media platforms, music and video subscription services and global online shopping centres. Every business wants to own their customer’s web experience. But this is not why the web has been so successful.

Last year, Berners-Lee published an open letter in which he explains why the web needs to be more open, rather than users’ experiences being defined by the web giants. He argued that just like a software product, the web itself can be refined, and the “bugs” ironed out.

Just as CompuServe and Aol had walled gardens before the web, now the likes of Amazon,Facebook and Netflix often represent people’s primary experience of the web. They are not public domain. And while they may be built on open source, they are commercial services, effectively closed off from a WWW that offers free access to all. Three decades on since its invention, now is the time for society to consider how the web should evolve and what role commercial exploitation of the web should play.

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