Honor the Web's 25th Birthday by Upholding Its Founding Principles

NEWS ANALYSIS: Tim Berners-Lee urges net citizens to become activists that uphold the spirit of open collaboration that made the World Wide Web great.

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It wasn’t all that long after the World Wide Web grew from a private email channel for the scientific and defense communities on the verge of its explosive expansion into a global phenomenon that I had my first Web experience with browsers, Web servers and the power of links.

It was back in the days when eWEEK was still PC Week and the lab included an eclectic bunch of techies plugging and prodding whichever piece of electronics found its way into labland. One of the chief prodders, Eamonn Sullivan, took it upon himself to set up a server and put PC Week on the web before Netscape became a business entity and sufficiently strong to make Microsoft tremble.

In any case, I’d like to say I understood the ramifications of what I was viewing on that Mosaic browser in 1994, but that wasn’t the case. Other than figuring I was looking at the end of CompuServe and Prodigy as well as a really neat publishing platform, I didn’t foresee Amazon or Google or millions of people rushing to Facebook to let me know what they had for breakfast. If you want to see what that first PC Week Website looked like, it is, remarkably, still available here.

I’m guessing that even Tim Berners-Lee didn’t foresee the scale of World Wide Web growth into the incredible economic engine it is today as March 12 marked the 25th anniversary of the global hypertext Mesh service Berners-Lee proposed to his fellow workers at the CERN particle physics laboratory. The World Wide Web was aptly named as it has become the defacto platform for global communications, commerce and conflict.

Berners-Lee took a few moments to acknowledge the WWW anniversary in a message and on a Web site at webat25.org. On that site he notes, “There are a few principles, which allowed the web, as a platform, to support such growth. By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. Thousands of people worked together to build the early Web in an amazing, non-national spirit of collaboration; tens of thousands more invented the applications and services that make it so useful to us today, and there is still room for each one of us to create new things on and through the Web. This is for everyone.”

Those guiding principles are being sorely tested in the current economic and social climate. The need for universal, royalty-free and decentralized access is challenged by digital video streams which quickly eat up web capacity every day.

The "non-national spirit of collaboration" is being sorely tested by revelations that nations are using the Web to spy on each other and on their own citizens. The creation of new things on the Web has also meant the creation of a dark Web designed to turn individual hacking into a worldwide criminal enterprise.

Berners-Lee outlines three key challenges:

“1. How do we connect the nearly two-thirds of the planet who can’t yet access the Web?

2. Who has the right to collect and use our personal data, for what purpose and under what rules?

3. How do we create a high-performance open architecture that will run on any device, rather than fall back into proprietary alternatives?”

One thing I’ve learned from watching the Web grow is that it is much better to tackle the types of issues Berners-Lee outlines at the start of the controversy rather than at the end when economic, political and social forces have led to decisions about which we were never aware.

The future of the World Wide Web is as difficult to foresee now as when I first looked at that Mosaic browser, but I am sure the changes to come will be as consequential as the changes which have already occurred. Berners-Lee is right in advising Web users to also become Web activists in ensuring that whatever changes take place, the fundamental pillars remain.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008 authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.