Happy Birthday, World Wide Web. It was 30 years ago that British engineer Sir Tim Berners-Lee effectively created the medium that has made communication instantaneous and cheap, spawned a generation of content surfers, launched many a billion-dollar business, and upended nearly every industry.
To celebrate, Berners-Lee wrote a somber reflection on where the web–which along the way lost its early capitalization–is today. “The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more,” he wrote, but it is also rife with “dysfunction.” He then called on governments, companies, and users alike to unite in combatting those problems before they get worse.
“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” Berners-Lee wrote, before outlining each of the three areas of dysfunctions in more detail:
Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.
System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse.
Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web while working as a fellow at CERN in 1989. His insight was to combine hypertext, or software that connected different documents with a mouse click, with the nascent Internet. On March 11, 1989, Berners-Lee submitted to CERN a proposal for an information-management system that would build a hypertext system on the distributed computers then linked by the Internet.
The rest, as they say, is history. In recent years, the web’s problems seem to have begun outweighing its benefits, with executives from giants like Facebook and Google summoned before regulators to address concerns. While regulators in Europe are beginning to enact laws to control the problems of digital content, some U.S. politicians are starting to call for breaking up the powerful giants.
At last year’s Web Summit conference, Berners-Lee and the Web Foundation, a group formed to address the challenges facing the web, unveiled a set of core principles for governments, companies and people to follow in an effort to curb the Internet’s more damaging effects. The principles concerned universal access, building strong and respectful communities, and protecting privacy and personal data.
Berners-Lee’s reflection on the web’s 30th birthday urged everyone involved with the web to embrace those core principles.
“The web is for everyone and collectively we have the power to change it,” 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.”