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

Technician Francois Fluckiger took charge of the web team after Tim Berners-Lee left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. (AFP)
Updated 04 March 2019
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As the web turns 30, is it an ‘out-of-control monster’?

  • Primitive forms of the Internet — a network linking computers — had previously existed
  • But it was the World Wide Web that allowed web pages to be collected and accessed with a browser

MEYRIN, Switzerland: Thirty years ago, this month, a young British physician working at a lab near Geneva invented a system for scientists to share information that would ultimately change humanity.
But three decades after he invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee has warned that his creation has been “hijacked by crooks” that may spell its destruction.
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 said.
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 decentralized information management system” soon gave birth to the web.
Primitive forms of the Internet — a network linking computers — had previously existed, but it was the World Wide Web that allowed web pages to be collected and accessed with a browser.
“Very early on, we had the feeling that history was in the making,” Fluckiger said.
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.
The browser was released outside of CERN in early 1991, first to other research institutions and later to the public.
Fluckiger, now retired, hailed the web as one of three major inventions in the 20th century that enabled the digital society, alongside the Internet Protocol (IP) and Google’s search algorithms.
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.”
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.
“The web has been hijacked by crooks and trolls who have used it to manipulate people all over the world,” Berners-Lee warned in a New York Times op-ed in December, citing threats ranging from the dark web, to cybercrime, fake news and personal data theft.
In January, the man dubbed the “father of the web” urged the global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos to join the fight against the “polarization” of online debates.
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 cybersecurity,” and called for the creation of “soft mechanisms” to help rein in countries using this technology to violate human rights.
Back in 1989, no one could have foreseen the importance of the emerging web.
CERN has held onto only a few souvenirs from the early days: the first memo that Berners-Lee drafted about his invention, his black NeXT computer station and his keyboard.
But while CERN may not have preserved many keepsakes to memorialize the historic invention, it has strived to prevent the web from falling into the wrong hands.
In 1993, the organization 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.
That proved a crucial move that allowed CERN to retain the intellectual property rights to the invention while giving access to anyone to use and modify the web freely and without cost.
In 1995, the intellectual property rights were transferred to a consortium set up by Berners-Lee based out of MIT, called W3C.
“We were lucky that during those 18 months, no one seized the web,” Fluckiger said.
“Otherwise, there might not have been a web today.”


WWWorries? Inventor of Web laments coming-of-age woes

Updated 12 March 2019
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WWWorries? Inventor of Web laments coming-of-age woes

  • Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN as a software engineer when he invented the hypertext-transfer protocol
  • He hopes countries can make the web available to more citizens

GENEVA: The inventor of the World Wide Web knows his revolutionary innovation is coming of age, and doesn’t always like what he sees: state-sponsored hacking, online harassment, hate speech and misinformation among the ills of its “digital adolescence.”
Tim Berners-Lee issued a cri-de-coeur letter and spoke to a few reporters Monday on the eve of the 30-year anniversary of his first paper with an outline of what would become the web — a first step toward transforming countless lives and the global economy.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, plans to host Berners-Lee and other web aficionados on Tuesday. “We’re celebrating, but we’re also very concerned,” Berners-Lee said.
Late last year, a key threshold was crossed — roughly half the world has gotten online. Today some 2 billion websites exist.
The anniversary offers “an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go,” Berners-Lee said, calling the “fight” for the web “one of the most important causes of our time.”
He is convinced the online population will continue to grow, but says accessibility issues continue to beset much of the world.
“Look at the 50 percent who are on the web, and it’s not so pretty for them,” he said. “They are all stepping back suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections realizing that this web thing that they thought was so cool has actually not necessarily been serving humanity very well.”
The anniversary is also a nod to the innovative, collaborative and open-source mindset at the Geneva-based CERN, where physicists smash particles together to unlock secrets of science and the universe.
As a young English software engineer, Berners-Lee came up with the idea for hypertext-transfer protocol — the “http” that adorns web addresses — and other building blocks for the web while working at CERN in March 1989. Some trace the actual start of the web to 1990, when he released the first web browser.
Berners-Lee reminisced about how he was really out to get disparate computer systems to talk to one another, and resolve the “burning frustration” over a “lack of interoperability” of documentation from disparate computing systems used at CERN in the late 1980s.
Now, the hope of his World Wide Web Foundation is to enlist governments, companies, and citizens to take a greater role in shaping the web for good under principles laid out in its “Contract for the Web.”
Under the contract’s sweeping, broad ambition, governments are supposed to make sure everyone can connect to the Internet, to keep it available and to respect privacy. Companies are to make the Internet affordable, respect privacy and develop technology that will put people — and the “public good” — first. Citizens are to create and to cooperate and respect “civil discourse,” among other things.
To Berners-Lee, the web is a “mirror of humanity” where “you will see good and bad.”
“The Contract for the Web recognizes that whether humanity, in fact, is constructive or not actually depends on the way you write the code of the social network,” he said.
Some tough regulation may be necessary in some places, in others not, Berners-Lee said.
On one issue, he’s insistent: “Net neutrality — strong regulation,” Berners-Lee said, hammering a fist on the table. He was alluding to a principle that anyone with an Internet connection should have equal access to video, music, email, photos, social networks, maps and other online material.
Berners-Lee said the web has created opportunity, made lives easier and given the marginalized a voice, but “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”
Ultimately, his “Contract” proposal is not about “quick fixes,” but a process for shifting people’s relationship with the online world, he said.
“It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future,” he wrote.