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?

On March 12, 1989, a computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee was about to change history. He handed his boss a document called “Information Management: A Proposal”. It suggested a system which would allow people to share and access information from any computer.

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

“Vague, but exciting” his boss scrawled across the top of the paper.

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

In 1994, the web was made free for anyone to make their own website. That same year, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon. The first online order was also placed that year (although not on Amazon — it was a large pizza from Pizza Hut.)

Today, there are two billion websites. Almost half the world’s population is online. Around three billion people are on social media.

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 wrote that fake news, trolling and data leaks meant that the web “might be damaging our societies.”

Web of lies?

The web really has connected billions of people, while making information free for everyone — just as it promised. Do its problems undo all of that? On balance, has the internet made the world a better place? Or would we all have been better off without it?

And how do we fix those problems? Berners-Lee has two solutions. First, a “Contract for the Web” which will explains people’s responsibilities online. Second, personal data “pods” which give people control over who can use 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”?

Activities

  1. Imagine the web had not been invented. List three ways that life would be worse, and three ways that life would improve.

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. For example, 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.)
What do we not know?
How the web will change over the next 30 years. Although Berners-Lee wants to stick to its original principles (cheap, easy and equal access) not everyone agrees.

Word Watch

Tim Berners-Lee
The British computer scientist was 33 when he first proposed the web.
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).
Internet
The global system of connected devices, including the cables or wireless networks which connect them.