World Wide Web: Google Doodle Honoree Has a Warning for the Future

Berners-Lee has warned that the web needs protecting.

Happy birthday to the world wide web! With a Google Doodle, the search giant celebrated the 30th anniversary of the global information exchange on Tuesday, marking the day when Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for a form of the internet that would transform society. Although the web has enabled a vast spread of knowledge, its creator has warned that humans need to take action to ensure it changes for the better in the next 30 years.

“Today, 30 years on from my original proposal for an information management system, half the world is online,” Berners-Lee writes in an open letter published Tuesday. “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.”

The web — not to be confused with the internet — was first outlined in a paper titled, “Information Management: A Proposal.”

In the landmark paper, Berners-Lee details a way of using the interconnected global computer network known as the “internet” to power a database navigated using hyperlinks. It’s hard to envision an internet without the web browser, but at the time the idea was considered revolutionary — or in the words of his boss at CERN, Mike Sendall, “vague, but exciting.”

Berners-Lee was born in London in 1955. His parents were computer scientists, and he spent his early years working with model trains. He came to CERN in Switzerland to help with software for the particle physics lab, but grew frustrated with information sharing in the labs. He found that “often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee.”

Google's doodle to mark the occasion.

The web aimed to solve this. Berners-Lee developed a web browser called WorldWideWeb, which used a language called HTML and an application called HTTP to display pages of information that users could navigate by clicking around. The project finally launched in 1991.

This diagram in the original proposal by Berners-Lee for the world wide web shows he envisioned linking information together.
This diagram in the original proposal by Berners-Lee for the world wide web shows he envisioned linking information together.

Since then, the web has birthed all manner of businesses, communities, and initiatives. The four largest companies in the world by market cap last year (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon) all use the web as a key source of revenue. Alphabet started life as the Google search engine, helping people navigate these collections of web pages, while Amazon enabled those visitors to order products for delivery. Organic groups have also sprung out of the web, using its pages to organize events and share information about their interests.

Berners-Lee has warned, however, that the web faces a number of challenges. Calling for the protection of an open web, he urged others to protect against malicious activity like hacking, social media bubbles, and clickbait. Berners-Lee cited the Cambridge Analytica scandal in an interview with the BBC as an example of how user data had been manipulated. The Web Foundation, founded by Berners-Lee, is developing a Contract for the Web to push for solutions to these issues.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us,” Berners-Lee writes in his open letter. “We will have failed the web.”

Its far-reaching consequences, with the ability to influence elections and shape public discourse, seem a far cry from a network designed to replace coffee breaks.