Happy birthday, World Wide Web! On 25th anniversary, inventor calls for action to ensure freedom online

British inventor Tim Berners-Lee calls on users to shape internet's future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 11:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 2:07pm

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web today, its inventor is calling on more people to take action this year to keep the online resource open, global, accessible and free of censorship.

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who first proposed the Web in March 1989, said in a statement today: “If we want a Web that is truly for everyone, then everyone must play a role in shaping its next 25 years.”

Leading that initiative will be the World Wide Web Foundation and standards body the World Wide Web Consortium, the two organisations which Berners-Lee founded and help run.

He called on people to sign up and join the “Web We Want Campaign” at webwewant.org. Co-organised by the Web Foundation, the campaign provides information on how people can participate in events and actions in their respective countries or communities to defend users’ rights on the Web.

“The Web’s billions of users are what have made it great,” said Berners-Lee, citing the theme of his famous tweet during the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, “This is for Everyone”.

Anne Jellema, the chief executive at the Web Foundation, told the South China Morning Post this morning that the new Web campaign’s goal is “to see digital Bills of Rights put in place in each country around the world”.

“We believe that such frameworks should address access and skills, as well as civil liberties and the conditions needed to keep the network open and innovative. When this is achieved, things will look very different for businesses and governments,” Jellema said.

“Keeping the net open, global, accessible to all and free of censorship, excessive surveillance or domination by a few large commercial players is good for innovation and growth, so business will benefit. What’s more, legal certainty will allow businesses to plan with certainty without fear of ad hoc changes in policy — a President deciding to shut down YouTube, for example.”

I also hope this anniversary will spark a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the Web successful
Tim Berners-Lee

The digital Bill of Rights are also expected to provide a significant change to governments amid the many revelations over the past few years of cyber-spying by states on their citizens and each other.

“It would usher in a new era where governments learn to embrace, instead of fear, the radical transparency and accountability and peer-to-peer decision-making that the Web enables,” Jellema said.

“For citizens, the right to ubiquitous, affordable, private and unimpeded communication will allow us to play a much greater role in shaping our societies and solving public problems, whether as community leaders, entrepreneurs or artists.”

Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1989, about 20 years after the first connection was established over the infrastructure that is known today as the internet.

At the time, he was a software engineer at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. This organization operates the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. 

Many scientists participated in experiments at CERN for extended periods of time, then returned to their laboratories around the world. Berners-Lee understood the need of these scientists to exchange data and results, which was a vastly difficult endeavor at the time.

He documented what was to become the World Wide Web with the submission of a proposal to his management at CERN, in 1989. This proposal specified a set of technologies that would make the internet truly accessible and useful to people. 

That initial proposal, however, was not immediately accepted. Berners-Lee persevered and managed to specify by October 1990 the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation of today’s Web.

These technologies included HyperText Markup Language, the publishing format for the Web; the Uniform Resource Identifier, which is the online “address” that is unique to each resource on the Web; and including the ability to format documents and link to other documents and Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the Web.

On April 1993, CERN declared that the Web technology would be freely usable by anyone.

Berners-Lee hoped that many people worldwide will join today in celebrating the Web’s important milestone. 

“I also hope this anniversary will spark a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the Web successful, and to unlock the Web's untapped potential,” he said.

“I believe we can build a Web that truly is for everyone: one that is accessible to all, from any device, and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans.”

He encouraged everyone to mark today’s occasion by sharing greetings on social media using the #web25 hashtag. Select greetings will be posted on a virtual birthday card at the official anniversary site, webat25.org.

The Web Foundation said Berners-Lee planned to engage Web users, businesses and policy-makers in debating various critical issues. These included: regulation of the internet; connecting the nearly three in five people worldwide with no access to the Web; growing need for online freedom and privacy; making more key government data available; and meeting industry demand for interoperability, mobility, and performance across internet-connected devices.

Data from the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, showed that about 61 per cent of the estimated 7.1 billion world population last year were not connected to the internet.

Asked what Berners-Lee and CERN could have done differently 25 years ago, Jellema said: "Tim often jokes that he didn’t need the double slash after the colon.” 

In an interview with Wired Magazine last month, Berners-Lee admitted that the double slash “just seemed like a good idea at the time”.