On this day in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at CERN, Geneva, ubmitted a proposal to make the Internet accessible to everyone. Mike Sendall, his boss, read the proposal and commented that it was “vague, but exciting”. Now, as we celebrate the 30th birthday of what we know today as the world wide web, we can all agree that Sendall's comment was perhaps the “biggest understatement of the century”.
The Internet did not begin with Tim Berners-Lee, however. In fact, the Internet had been around since 1967 – since American research and defense organisations put together the ARPANET to share data with each other. The 1980s saw the development of TCP-IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), which made it possible to break up information into packets and sent it from one computer to another. Still, until Berners-Lee's proposal, the Internet had remained in isolated pockets and were not accessible to many.
By integrating existing concepts, like hypertext, Berners-Lee was able to make the Internet made available to more. By 1991, Lee had already development tools that would become the web browser and server. The idea of a URL was also conceived by Lee. With the help of CERN, he opened the world wide web to the public.
When asked who owns this, Lee replied, “We do!”. By also making the source code public, Lee ensured that there were not hurdles in the way for anyone wanting to access the Internet. Four billion people use the Internet today.
Now, 30 years later, Lee can't hold back the disappointment in seeing the world wide web being used for ill intentions. He has, in media interviews, talked about being disturbed by the loss of privacy data hoarding by large companies. He also admitted to not having envisioned the problems of online abuse, misinformation and data protection during the development and built safety measures to counter it.
In an open letter to mark the anniversary, Berners-Lee said many people now felt unsure about whether the web was a force for good, but that it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that it could not change for the better. It is our journey, he said, from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.
Driven by the same spark that led him to create the world wide web, Berners-Lee launched a platform called Solid in 2015, which he says will allow users to maintain full control of their data. The idea is to take the web back to the free, cooperative space it was once meant to be.
(CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research.)