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The web turns 30: from proposal to pervasion

The web is celebrating its 30th anniversary, but can it remain true to its founder’s vision?

Today at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, Tim Berners-Lee is celebrating the invention of the World Wide Web,

In an open letter published on the World Wide Web Foundation, the web’s founder urged citizens, governments and organisations to come together to create a contract for the web to enable it to remain a force for good.

In the letter, Berners-Lee wrote: “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.”

Thirty years ago, while working at CERN, Berners-Lee identified a major problem with keeping track of scientific knowledge, given the large numbers of researchers who spent time at the research facility.

A problem, however, is the high turnover of people. When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time, and that of others, before they have any idea of what goes on,” he wrote. “The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.”

In his original idea – Information management: A proposal – of March 1989, Berners-Lee described the original premise for the World Wide Web as an approach to enable the people at CERN to share documents easily. He developed the httpd web server and text-based HTML web browser to access web pages via a green screen terminal.

This initial idea was further refined the following year, with Belgian systems engineer Robert Cailliau. On 12 November 1990, the pair published a formal proposal outlining principal concepts and defining important terms behind the web.

The original World Wide Web was developed and run on a NeXT computer running the NeXTstep Unix operating system. Berners-Lee carried the web around with him to demonstrate it at various scientific institutes.

The web reaches far and wide

In April 1993, the web was made available, for free, in the public domain.

“There is no sector of society that has not been transformed by the invention, in a physics laboratory, of the web,” said Rolf Heuer, Cern’s Director-General. “From research to business and education, the web has been reshaping the way we communicate, work, innovate and live. The web is a powerful example of the way that basic research benefits humankind.”

“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”
Tim Berners-Lee

CERN then made the next release available with an open licence, to encourage wider use of the web. At the time, CERN said: “Through these actions, making the software required to run a web server freely available, along with a basic browser and a library of code, the web was allowed to flourish.”

While the web is truly global, its founder is now grappling with the internet’s relationship with business and the idea that the web giants create walled gardens, which are not open to everyone.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, Facebook, YouTube, et al, have taken the original premise of the web and democratised information sharing to the point where anybody can post an update, image or video, anywhere and at any time. Anyone can receive this post, no matter how irrelevant or inappropriate it is.

However, the recently published Fake News and Disinformation report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, stated: “Digital literacy should be a fourth pillar of education. People need to be resilient about their relationship with such sites, particularly around what they read and what they write.”

In his open letter, Berners-Lee said he believed the web could be adapted to avoid its misuse by hackers and people spreading hate and false information.

“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,” he wrote.

Read more about the evolution of the WWW

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