As you’ve probably noticed, the worldwide web is celebrating its 25th birthday today.
Back on 12 March 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee sent his boss at CERN a proposal for a connected “information management” system, which was to gather rapid momentum in the nineties and become the web as we know it. Although his boss at the time only commented that it was “vague, but exciting” (the Evening Standard notes).
Berners-Lee then went on to get the first web server and client up and running, and the system went live come August 1991. In 1993, there were an estimated 500 web servers across the globe, but the worldwide web still only accounted for 1 per cent of Internet traffic. As we remember it, it wasn’t until about 1995 that the web really started to take off (if memory serves correctly!).
The anniversary of his creation hasn’t been a happy balloon, cake and candle-filled occasion for Sir Tim, however, as he’s used the milestone as a platform to talk about what’s gone wrong with the web – namely that it’s being bent out of shape under the influence of governments and corporations using it for their own ends.
He believes that the rights of web surfers need to be better protected, and that a “Magna Carta” style bill of rights should be implemented in order to do so.
Sir Tim told the Guardian: “We need a global constitution – a bill of rights.”
“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what's happening at the back door, we can't have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It's not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”
Of course, he is particularly concerned about the tentacles of NSA surveillance, and the timing of this anniversary is perfect given that this is exactly what Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have just been passionately discussing at SXSW.
Berners-Lee hopes that such an online constitution would protect privacy and free speech, and would allow for a certain (responsible) level of anonymity.
“Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it,” he warned. “So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years.”
A global online constitution would have its issues in terms of hammering out something agreeable across the world, but Sir Tim firmly believes that a shared document of principle is a viable prospect despite the many cultural nuances and regulatory differences across nations.
He also called for an overhaul of the legal system in terms of the net, and singled out copyright law as being largely written to just protect movie companies, saying that “none of this has been set up to preserve the day to day discourse between individuals and the day to day democracy that we need to run the country.”