Innovation

The World Wide Web Turns 30

World Wide Web

While all sorts of outlets wished the internet a happy birthday yesterday (March 12) they were a little bit off in their well wishes. The internet did not turn 30 this week.

The World Wide Web did.

The internet dates back to the 1960s ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) and a military project to protect intelligence data from being lost should foreign agents manage to destroy one cache. That project, with a boost from MIT grad students Larry Roberts and Leonard Kelinrock, became the ARPANET.

ARPANET was the first working computer network and formed the basis for the modern internet. A few years later two ARPANET architects, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, created the modern internet protocols for information sharing between computers that are still in use today.

So that is the internet proper — the giant network of computers united by the ability to communicate and exchange data via that network. To access the internet in a comprehensible way, however, you need the World Wide Web. If the internet is the information superhighway, the web is the car that allows you to drive on it without being rolled over by torrents of data.

And that innovation came down the pike sometime later than the original innovations that made up the internet — via a plan by physicist and self-taught computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, first developed when he was working at the CERN particle accelerator in 1989.

At that point computer networks were over 30 years old, email was floating around and the particularly tech savvy had been using Unix since the 1970s. But one had to be particularly tech savvy (and have regular access to a computer, which was rare until the mid-1980s for most Americans), because as of 1989 there was no integrated system to easily create, transmit or store interconnected data across computers in an organized way.

So Berners-Lee created one in a plan called “Information Management: A Proposal.”

Within that proposal, he outlined his idea for a computerized system that would allow users to write, format, and interlink content (i.e. webpages) through hypertext (i.e. links).

The idea was to create a clean interface so that messy, complicated computer code would become accessible in a universally standardized format. He called it a “boon for the world.”

His supervisor called it “Vague, but exciting.”

Vague though it seemed, Berners-Lee got permission to build his system, which he named the World Wide Web — which at the time was a pretty grandiose claim. By the end of 1990, Berners-Lee had written the world’s first web server and the world’s first browser client to dictate the way computers parse URLs, HTTP and HTML.

He did all of this, notably, by the time he was 35.

Since then he has been a major thought leader on the internet — and an outspoken proponent of net neutrality.

Last fall he launched a company called Inrupt, based around helping consumers protect their online identity, in a plan to “decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it.”

The hook? Technology that enables consumers to control their data as they shop, pay and perform other tasks online.

Inrupt itself is built around the Solid platform, which Berners-Lee also invented.

“Solid … gives every user a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use,” according to the Inrupt site. “It allows you, your family and colleagues to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time.”

Berners-Lee has also been a vocal critic of what he calls misuse of his signature invention — the web.

Noting the web’s 30th anniversary, Berners-Lee wrote in a letter that while the technology had created positive opportunities, it had also been abused by “scammers” and “given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”

Berners-Lee called on governments, organizations and the public to work together to improve the current system for everyone.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us — we will have failed the web,” he said.

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