Science & Technology

As the web turns 30, is it an ‘out-of-control monster’?

Berner-Lee’s old office at Europe’s physics lab CERN now looks no different than the others lining the long, nondescript corridor within the expansive compound.

The only indication that history was made here is a small commemorative plaque and a page from an old CERN directory hung on the door, with “MOMENTARILY OUT OF OFFICE!” written in jest next to Berners-Lee’s name.

“Tim worked a lot,” said technician Francois Fluckiger, who took charge of the web team after Berners-Lee left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994.

“The lights were always on in his office,” Fluckiger told AFP.

– History in the making –

Berners-Lee was responsible for CERN’s internal directory but was interested in ways to allow the thousands of scientists around the world who cooperated with the lab to more easily share their work.

His vision for “a decentralised information management system” soon gave birth to the web.

In 1990, Belgian scientist Robert Cailliau came onboard to help promote the invention, which used Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, as a standard to create webpages.

They created the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, which allows users to access resources by clicking on hyperlinks, and also Uniform Resource Locators, or URLs, as a website address system.

At the end of 1990, Berners-Lee set CERN’s first web navigator server into action.

But he lamented the “online bullying, fake news, and mass hysteria” that flourish online as well as threats to privacy.

“One has to ask oneself if we did not, in the end, create a completely out-of-control monster.”

– ‘Crooks and trolls’ –

Berners-Lee has launched his own campaign to “save the web”.

At the Web Summit in Lisbon last November, he called for a new “Contract for the Web”, based on access for all and the fundamental right to privacy, among other things.

He called for discussion platforms that connect people with different opinions and backgrounds, contrary to today’s common practice of creating online ghettos, filter bubbles and feedback loops where people rarely encounter opinions different from their own.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres also voiced concerns at Davos over the direction the web was taking.

He warned of the impact “of the dark web and the deep web and all the problems of cyber security”, and called for the creation of “soft mechanisms” to help rein in countries using this technology to violate human rights.

– Open source –

Back in 1989, no one could have foreseen the importance of the emerging web.

In 1993, the organisation announced it was putting the web software into the public domain, which could have allowed any individual or business to claim it as their own and control its development.

But destiny, with a little help from Fluckiger, helped avert potential disaster.

After discussions with CERN’s legal service, Fluckiger decided in 1994 to launch a new open source version of the web.

“We were lucky that during those 18 months, no one seized the web,” Fluckiger said.

“Otherwise, there might not have been a web today.”

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