On March 11, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer programmer working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, sent in a proposal for an information management system. His boss responded with a note that read “vague but exciting.”
That proposal was the first sketch of what would become the World Wide Web, creating the system that functions on the internet today.
But as the web today, Tuesday marks 30 years of its existence, Tim in an open letter lamented that what he created for the good of humanity has become a tool for the good, bad and the ugly. Below is the letter.
“Today, 30 years on from my original proposal for an information management system, half the world is online. It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go” said in the letter he wrote to mark the existence of the web.
While expressing delight at how far the web affacted every aspect of man he said that it “has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone”.
He said the web has created opportunity, given marginalised 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.
Tim did actually expressed reservation if the web has served the good of man, saying, “it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”
While calling for urgent step to tackle any problem associated with web, he said, “we must clearly outline and understand it. I broadly see three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web: Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”
“While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimize this behaviour, just as we have always done offline. The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that change incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.
“You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. 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.”
He urged governments to translate laws and regulations for the digital age, noting, “They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online. We need open web champions within government — civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web.”
Tim added that companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety adding that platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind. This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit.
“And most important of all, citizens must hold companies and governments accountable for the commitments they make, and demand that both respect the web as a global community with citizens at its heart. If we don’t elect politicians who defend a free and open web, if we don’t do our part to foster constructive healthy conversations online, if we continue to click consent without demanding our data rights be respected, we walk away from our responsibility to put these issues on the priority agenda of our governments.
“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time. Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.
“The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”