The web at 30: a ‘monster hijacked by crooks’

Information superhighway: A timeline of the last 30 years online. What have been the highlights?

Should we be celebrating its birthday? There is no denying that the internet has revolutionised every aspect of human life, from war to dating to shopping. But has it made things better?

March 12, 1989. Margaret Thatcher is prime minister. The Berlin Wall is still standing. Jason Donovan has the number one single in the UK. And a computer scientist at CERN in Switzerland is about to change history.

That computer scientist was Tim Berners-Lee. He handed his boss a document called “Information Management: A Proposal”. It suggested an internet-based communication system which would allow people to share and access information from any computer, using links to navigate between pages.

This was his first proposal for the World Wide Web, which today celebrates its 30th birthday.

“Vague, but exciting” was his boss’s (now famous) comment scrawled across the top.

It is not the same thing as the internet, which had been developed in the 1960s. But the web allowed the internet to go global. By 1991, the first website was live.

In 1993, Time magazine called Berners-Lee’s invention “almost Gutenbergian.”

A year later CERN launched a free, open source version of the web that meant anyone could make their own website. That same year, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, and the first online order was placed (although not on Amazon — it was a large pizza from Pizza Hut.)

But some were already afraid of what the web would do to the world, worrying that it would “pollute the human spirit.”

Today, there are two billion websites. Almost half the global population is online, and around three billion people are on social media. The web has transformed almost every aspect of daily life, from how we keep up with our friends to how we watch TV.

Meanwhile, Berners-Lee is fighting to save his invention. “The web has been hijacked by crooks,” he wrote in The New York Times in December. He cites fake news, “state-sponsored trolling” and the Cambridge Analytica scandal as ways that it “might be damaging our societies.”

His successor at CERN, Francois Fluckiger, has gone further: “One has to ask oneself if we did not, in the end, create a completely out-of-control monster.”

Web of lies?

Is this a little harsh? The web really has connected billions of people, while making information free and easy to access for everyone — just as it promised. Do the serious problems that have emerged recently undo all of that good? On balance, has the internet made the world a better place? Or would we all have been better off without it?

And how to fix those problems? Berners-Lee has two solutions: first, a “Contract for the Web” which will establish core principles of respect and responsibility online. Second, personal data “pods” which allow people more control over which companies can access their information. Will either of them work? How would you change online life, if you could?

You Decide

  1. Is the internet “an out-of-control monster”?
  2. Would you give up the internet in exchange for £1 million?

Activities

  1. Imagine the web had not been invented. List three ways that life would be worse, and three ways that life would improve.
  2. You have been put in charge of writing a Contract for the Web. Write down a series of commitments you would want from governments, companies and ordinary users. When you are done, compare it to the contract being proposed by Berners-Lee, found under Become An Expert. Did you have similar ideas?

Some People Say...

“The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.”

Eric Schmidt

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The internet has many birthdays — you could also choose October 29, 1969, when the first computers were linked on ARPANET (a precursor to the internet developed by the US military.) Or August 6, 1991, when the first website actually went live. Most people, however, have settled on today as the beginning of the web as we still know and use it. This year, internet users are expected to number half the global population for the first time.
What do we not know?
When the other half will gain access to the internet — or how it will be shaped over the next 30 years. Although people like Berners-Lee want to stick to its original principles (cheap, easy and equal access) not everyone agrees. In China, for example, what ordinary people can see online is heavily censored.

Word Watch

CERN
The European Organization for Nuclear Research: a physics laboratory in Switzerland which is now famous for being the home of the Large Hadron Collider.
Tim Berners-Lee
The British computer scientist was 33 when he first proposed the web.
Internet
The global system of connected devices, including the cables or wireless networks which connect them.
World wide web
The space where information can be accessed, via the internet. Berners-Lee’s invention included three key technologies: HTML (the code used to build web pages); URL (a page’s unique web address); and HTTP (which allows people to access the pages).
Gutenbergian
A reference to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in the 15th century. It made printing books and pamphlets much easier, allowing information to spread. As Time put it: Berners-Lee “took a powerful communications system that only the elite could use and turned it into a mass medium.”
Cambridge Analytica
A British company which used leaked information from 87 million Facebook users to attempt to influence the US presidential election in 2016.