World Wide Web Creator Not Happy on His Creation’s 30th Birthday

CYBERSPACE—Almost exactly three decades ago, on March 11, 1989, a British computer scientist working at CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research, located in Switzerland—submitted a proposal to his boss. The computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, had drawn up a rough proposal for an “information management” at CERN using “a distributed hypertext system.”

Berners-Lee’s boss scribbled a note on top of the proposal, saying simply, “Vague, but exciting.”

Now, 30 years later, that “information management” system which became known as the World Wide Web, has become the most world-changing force in the global communications and culture since the invention of the telephone itself, or the invention of television.

But the father of the World Wide Web is not happy with his creation, as it enters its fourth decade, calling it “not the web we wanted in every respect,” speaking at the “[email protected]” conference on Tuesday, as quoted by the Associated Press.  

In an open letter published on the World Wide Web Foundation site, Berners-Lee bemoaned what the web has become 30 years after he first dreamed it up.

“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,” he wrote.

The WWW creator went on to identify three specific areas of “dysfunction” that he believes must be addressed. in order for the World Wide Web to live up to its original potential. Those are:

• ”Deliberate, malicious intent.” This category includes cybercrime, state-sponsored hacking, and the many forms of online harassment.

• ”System design that creates perverse incentives.” In other words, advertising and economic models that reward “clickbait,” misinformation and disinformation—and any other system in that sacrifices “user value” to some other incentive, such as profit.

• ”Unintended negative consequences.” Even well-intentioned systems, such as online discussion groups, often go awry, and are overtaken by “outraged and polarized” discourse.

“You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit,” wrote Berners-Lee. “Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.”

As reported last year, the 63-year-old Berners-Lee has embarked on a new project, to create a new version of the web that will allow users to fully control their own data.

"You should have complete control of your data,” he said at the [email protected] conference. “It's not oil. It's not a commodity.”

Finally, however, Berners-Lee sounded an optimistic note about the future of his 30-year-old brainchild.

"The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won't be easy," the father of WWW said. “But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”

Photo By John S. and James L. Knight Foundation / Wikimedia Commons