Editorials

A vision of a connected world deferred, not yet denied

Thirty years ago this week, the World Wide Web was born. Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer programmer, proposed an information management system that would allow people working around the world to collaborate on projects. Three decades later, Berners-Lee assesses his idea with equal parts wonder and disappointment. He remains committed to his concept, however, and has embarked on new initiatives to reclaim its promise. It is a fight we should support.

On March 12, 1989, Berners-Lee, then working for the European Particle Physics Laboratory (better known as CERN), wrote a memo that sketched an internet-based system that would facilitate the sharing of information among different computers. It would break down the silos — both technological and bureaucratic — that blocked conversations and collaboration. It eased technical constraints by distributing data and eliminating the need for single site repositories. His goal was simple: connecting people.

To that end, he developed and then released the following year the hypertext transfer protocol, the ubiquitous HTTP that starts every web address. Three years later, CERN decided to keep HTTP free and open, distributing it without charge, instead of demanding a licensing fee for its use as a competitor did. (That competitor is now known only as the failed rival to HTTP.)

That meant that anyone with a web browser — software that reads and navigates those HTTP addresses — could access information. From that, the web exploded. It is estimated that by the end of 2018, more than half (55 percent) of the world’s population had access to the internet.

Asia accounted for half of those users. China has the largest number of citizens online, India is second and the United States is third; Japan is sixth. There are 1.94 billion websites worldwide, and connection speeds, which are critical to the browsing experience, are steadily rising and will ascend even further with the adoption of 5G telecommunications networks. Worryingly, Japan is not in the top 10 of either the world’s fastest fixed-line or mobile internet connections.

At the 30th anniversary of the web’s birth, Berners-Lee conceded that “the web is not the web we wanted in every respect.” His list of complaints is compelling. While 55 percent is an impressive penetration ratio, the fact that 45 percent remains offline is troubling, especially given the advantages bestowed by web access. In an open letter published earlier this week, Berners-Lee noted that “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.”

The ease with which the web has become a source of misinformation and division is alarming and poses genuine risks to national security as has become evident in the reports of meddling in elections in the United States and Europe. Berners-Lee bemoaned how his creation has “created an opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”

Then there is the massive power that has been accumulated by companies that control access to the web or the platforms that “netizens” spend much of their time on. “This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.” It also renders notions of privacy quaint and outdated.

Berners-Lee has not given up, however. He continues to believe that “the fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time.” He founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is trying to develop standards and guidelines for the web. One of its tools is the “Contract for the Web,” which will set norms, laws and standards that cover everything from access to content. A voluntary agreement, it can be successful if it gains critical mass. More than 50 companies, Google and Facebook among them, have already signed up, as has the French government. Japan should consider adherence as well.

Berners-Lee’s second initiative will give users control over their personal data. He is designing a system that will store that information in “pods,” access to which the individual would control. This would restore privacy — and upend many business models of digital companies, including the most successful, such as Facebook. That potential impact means that this proposal will encounter severe resistance. That also means that it is a good idea.

Berners-Lee retains the idealism that animated his original, crude sketch of what became the World Wide Web. He still seeks to create a universal tool that can break down national and cultural barriers to yield a “free, open and creative space — for everyone.” It is vision worth supporting, but one that demands more nurturing and foresight. Even at 30, it is not too late to begin.

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