While the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web yesterday, its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, offered a word of caution. Taking note of the larger role played by influencers and lobbies online, he urged collective action to protect the neutrality and openness of the Web. He also urged the need for an
Internet Bill of Rights, to be drafted in each country, and invited suggestions from the public for the next iteration of the Web. Earlier, he had famously disparaged Web 2.0 as “jargon”. The catchphrase describes interactive, dynamic sites like social media as distinct from the static, informational HTML pages of a decade ago, while he appears to foresee the development of a new medium altogether, based on new standards and with new capabilities.
But the Web has a mind of its own and will map its own course. Berners-Lee had first played with the idea of hypertext as a means of organising and sharing information in 1980. He married that with the Internet when he was a fellow at the European research agency CERN in 1989, when it was one of the biggest nodes on the early Internet. But the concept note he wrote, from which he developed the HTML language and HTTP protocol which structure and deliver the Web, was about organising information. Images were secondary. But when CERN opened the Web to public access in 1993 and Mosaic, the first graphical browser, was developed, the Web was rapidly adopted because layout and pictures made it intuitive. Earlier, information was distributed over the Internet by various protocols. For instance, the File Transfer Protocol distributed software, and was indexed by the Archie service, which was accessed by the Telnet protocol. Gopher was a protocol for delivering institutional information and was indexed by the Veronica and Jughead services. Modern browsers still support these protocols but links to the services and repositories have moved to the Web. HTTP has become or will become the default mode of delivery of all information, from static pages to movies.
But as the Web becomes pervasive and mainstream, leaving behind its roots in geekdom, Berners-Lee's warning about Net neutrality should be taken seriously. This is a value-neutral dual use technology, equally usable for good or evil. The protocol which acted as a force-multiplier for Arab Spring is also used by governments to spy on citizens, for instance. As Berners-Lee seems to suggest, it is