The world wide web is 30 years old this year. On 12 March 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for connecting information together so that it could be easily shared and accessed, describing how a “‘web’ of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system.” But the astronomical growth of the web could also be its downfall, Berners-Lee warns.
To commemorate its inception, and explain some of its creator’s concerns, here are eight things we think everyone should know about the world wide web, its past and its possible future.
1. Stop calling it the internet, please
The internet and the world wide web are not the same thing, even though the terms are sometimes used synonymously. The internet is a huge network of computers, including servers and data centers located all around the world – quite literally hundreds of millions of them. The world wide web is one of the ways people can access the information stored on the internet.
When you send emails they travel via the internet – but not via the web. If you’re a user of an instant messaging app such as WhatsApp, that uses the internet but not the web, and the same is true of services like Skype. The world wide web uses something called hypertext transfer protocol (the HTTP you’ve seen in web addresses) as the basis for communicating and distributing information.
2. It all started near the Swiss-French border
Berners-Lee was a software engineer working at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN) when he came up with the idea for the world wide web.
CERN was set up in 1954 and is located either side of the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Geneva. Although its initial focus was nuclear physics, the organization is now more famously associated with particle physics, and is home to the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.
3. It might have been called the Mish Mash Mesh
OK, that’s clearly an exaggeration on our part. But one of Berners-Lee’s early suggestions for the name of his “web of notes with links” was the Information Mesh. He also considered calling it the Information Mine, or the Mine of Information.
It’s hard to imagine a world where no one ever had to struggle saying “double-u, double-u, double-u, dot” all the time. But it nearly happened. Strictly speaking, there is no need to use www. at the start of a web address – it will work fine without it. It’s a convention or habit that’s stuck. Its purpose was simply to act as a marker that a web server was in use.
4. It almost never happened
When Berners-Lee submitted his idea, his then manager at CERN, Mike Sendall, wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. He described it as “vague, but exciting.” Exciting enough that he didn’t object to Berners-Lee developing his ideas further. But that didn’t happen until the following year. However, by October 1990, he had completed three of the world wide web’s most important, and enduring, components:
- A) HyperText Markup Language or HTML. This is the series of formatting tags and codes used on the web to pull information together and create links. It is also used to change the way information looks. For example, to make the word penguin appear bold you would include the following HTML tags, <b>penguin</b>.
- B) Hypertext Transfer Protocol or HTTP. This is a protocol – an agreed and standard way of doing something. In this case, it’s referring to the way information residing somewhere online is connected to, how it links to other resources, and how it is then delivered to the user’s screen across the web. Other protocols are used for other services that work over the internet. In the case of email, for example, you will find MAILTO to indicate which protocol is in use.
- C) Uniform Resource Identifier or URI. You can think of this as a unique address used to identify the location and properties of each resource available on the internet. This is particularly relevant here because it allows for instant identification of information on the world wide web. You may be familiar with the term URL (uniform resource locator). It’s a form of URI. Let’s look at this example of a URI: https://www.weforum.org/ to understand how it works. HTTPS – tells you this is hypertext-based, therefore it’s on the web. If it said FTP instead, you’d know it was a file transfer site. The S indicates encryption is being used for additional security.
5. You can still see the early web
The very first website was info.cern.ch. It was hosted by CERN, on Berners-Lee’s desktop computer. You can still view it if you follow this link.
By 1991, Berners-Lee began to realize the importance of making the web an open platform, saying: “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”
In 1993, Berners-Lee and CERN announced that the code used to build the web would be freely available for anyone and everyone to use. It was that move that sparked the growth of the world wide web we all use today.
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6. Ubiquitous surveillance
Many businesses operating online have been collecting user data for years, and while most of us are happy to exchange data for free access to services, there are now huge amounts of personal data in the hands of commercial entities. This has created a global surveillance culture, Berners-Lee warns, which endangers free speech, makes life easy for repressive regimes and even puts lives at risk. It could be one of the factors that contribute to the web stagnating.
7. The contagion of fake news
On Twitter, false information spreads six times faster than the truth and is far more likely to be shared around. Partly that’s because of the deliberate use of bots and fake accounts to help with the spreading. But it may also have something to do with the salaciousness of some fake news and how that appeals to people. Either way, it undermines trust and trust is hugely important if the web is to remain a viable platform going forward.
8. The splinternet
Perhaps the most significant threat to the web – and without doubt, the most existential one – is the development of something most commonly referred to as the splinternet. This refers to the possibility of the web (and indeed the internet in its entirety) being broken into smaller, regional pieces.
In part it is a reaction by some national governments to what they see as the undue influence of a small number of tech giants. As those national governments implement different levels of regulation, the very idea of a world wide web is cast into doubt. What was once envisaged as a seamless, borderless, even playing field offering a uniform online experience for everyone no matter who they are, will be no more.