Untangling the web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been happy to take a back seat as the web has developed – but now the man who shaped the modern digital world has decided he has to act, in order to save his invention.

Having invented the web 30 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has a new mission – to save the web. “The changes we’ve managed to bring about have created a better and more connected world,” he wrote in a September 2018 Medium post. “But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division, swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”

Berners-Lee is now deeply concerned about what people are doing with his invention. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said he was “sorrowful” and “devastated” at the uses to which the web has been put. So he is fighting back with a number of initiatives, such as a “contract for the web” to combat abuse, and Solid, a platform which aims to help people reclaim control of their data from the apps they use.

His impact on the modern world cannot be understated. The internet (as most people think of it) would not exist without him. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook could not exist without him. He has done more to change how we live over the past 20 years than almost anyone. He was named the greatest living Briton in 2004 (and knighted), Time called him one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, and he has received a Turing award. Yet he remains a relatively modest figure and lives the life of an academic and thinker, rather than a tech mogul.

Berners-Lee did not invent the internet. Rather, he invented the web. Very broadly, the former is the physical stuff – from your PC to the cable in the street to server farms and cloud storage. The web is made up of webpages and websites that are written in HTML (hypertext mark-up language) which he created. The net dates from the 1960s, the web from 1989. He also built the first website, which, as he was at CERN at the time, was Swiss.

Fans of digital history can find a nice picture of Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf standing next to each other at the World Wide Web Consortium’s 20th anniversary in 2004. The former is wearing a T-shirt that says “I invented the web”, the latter one saying “I invented the internet”.

The changes we’ve managed to bring about have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division, swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.

Ordinary world
Where did this modest digital titan come from? Berners-Lee was born and raised in the west London suburbs. His childhood was fairly ordinary, although he was brilliantly clever. His parents, who were mathematicians and computing pioneers, taught him that “maths is a lot of fun” and discussed subjects like artificial intelligence (in the 1960s!) at the dinner table. After finishing school, he went to Queen’s

College, Oxford, where he got a first in physics. After graduating, he moved into software. Following jobs at Plessey Telecommunications and DG Nash Ltd, he went freelance and took up a contract at CERN, the world’s largest particle accelerator, which is based in Geneva.

This was in 1980. It was here that the road that was to become the information superhighway began, when he wrote piece of software called “Enquire Within Upon Everything” (the name comes from a Victorian novel). The idea was that the program would organise things like a human brain and “keep track of all the random associations one comes across in real life”. Essentially, it linked words in files to other files (like HTML links do), and Berners-Lee has described it as the conceptual basis for the web.

He returned to CERN 1984 as a fellow. In 1989, he had his breakthrough when he wrote a proposal for “a large hypertext database with typed links”. At the time its significance was far from obvious, and few (including scientists) saw what it could become. Nonetheless, he worked with Robert Cailliau, a Belgian computer scientist, and in August 1991 the first website went online. It is still there, at info.cern.ch.

Gift to the world
Berners-Lee’s other great gift to the world was what he did with his idea – he gave it away for anyone to use, free of patents and royalties, and potentially forwent billions, even trillions, of dollars. While the web was initially viewed as an academic curiosity, interest began to grow and sites started to spring up in the early Nineties. In 1993, CERN released the Web protocols and code; in 1994, Berners-Lee established the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The first browser appeared in 1993, Yahoo in 1994, Amazon in 1995, and Google in 1998.

In the years since then, his vision of a democratic, open, decentralised internet has been challenged and undermined, as big business moved in, and then companies such as Facebook and mobile apps set about recreating the “walled garden” model of the internet that he had fought so hard to resist. All this (and much more) explains why he is now launching initiatives such as “the Contract for the Web” and Solid.

The ’Magna Carta for the web’ is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge, and democracy.

The first of these is described by Berners-Lee as “a Magna Carta for the web”. Berners-Lee recently told The Guardian that people had become disillusioned with the web and it was time to restore some of that early promise: “This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge, and democracy.” Companies like Google and Facebook have already signed up.

Of Solid, he recently wrote: “Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance – by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.” It’s an open-source platform that will allow people to store their data in “pods” rather than apps.

Changing the conversation
As Berners-Lee said in Davos recently, there are reasons for hope. Here he points to GDPR (general data protection regulation) as an example of something positive happening despite considerable resistance from vested interests. “It changed the whole conversation, even with big American multinationals who are not based in Europe,” he said. “The philosophy is now ‘you own your data’. I kind of like it.”

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