The World Wide Web turned 30 years old yesterday. As a part of the celebration, its creator, Tim Berners-Lee published an open letter on Monday, sharing his vision for the future of the web. In this year’s letter, he also expressed his concerns about the direction in which the web is heading and how we can make it as the one he envisioned.
To celebrate #Web30, Tim Berners-Lee is on a 30-hour trip and his first stop was the birthplace of WWW, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN.
I’m taking a 30-hour journey with @webfoundation to celebrate the web’s 30th birthday.
First stop @CERN — where it all began.
We’ll be visiting London, UK today and finishing in Lagos, Nigeria tomorrow.
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) March 12, 2019
Back in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, as a research fellow at the CERN researching lab, wrote a proposal to his boss titled Information Management: A Proposal. This proposal was for building an information system that would allow researchers to share general information about accelerators and experiments.
Initially, he named the project “The Mesh”, which combined hypertext with internet TCP and domain name system. The project did not go that well, but Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall did remark that the idea is “vague but exciting”. Later on, in 1990, he actually started coding for the project and this time he named the project, what we know today as, the World Wide Web. Fast forward to now, the simple innocent system that he built has become so large, connecting millions and millions of people across the globe.
If you are curious to know how WWW looked back then, check out its revived version by a CERN team:
💻 Try the recreated WWW browser for yourself: https://t.co/do5UeYY9Db
Find out more: https://t.co/wbNDSJzQDI
— CERN (@CERN) March 12, 2019
The three dysfunctions the Web is now facing
World Wide Web has come a long way. It has opened various opportunities, given voice to marginalized groups, and has made our daily lives much convenient and easier. At the same time, it has also given opportunities to scammers, provided a platform for hate speech, and made it extremely easy for committing crimes while sitting behind a computer screen.
Berners-Lee listed down three sources of problems that are affecting today’s web and also suggested a few ways we can minimize or prevent them:
“Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.”
Though it is really not possible to completely eliminate this dysfunction, policymakers can come up with laws and developers can take the responsibility to write code that will help minimize this behavior.
“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.”
These type of systems introduces the wrong ways of rewarding that encourage others to sacrifice the user’s interests. To prevent this problem developers need to rethink the incentives and accordingly redesign the systems so that they are not promoting these wrong behaviors.
“Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”
These are the systems that are created thoughtfully and with good intent but still result in negative outcomes. Actually, the problem is that it is really difficult to tell what are all the outcomes of the system you are building. Berners-Lee in an interview with The Guardian said, “Given there are more web pages than there are neurons in your brain, it’s a complicated thing. You build Reddit, and people on it behave in a particular way. For a while, they all behave in a very positive, constructive way. And then you find a subreddit in which they behave in a nasty way.”
This problem could be eliminated by researching and understanding of existing systems. Based on this research, we can then model possible new systems or enhance those we already have.
Contract for the Web
Berners Lee further explained that we can’t just really put the blame on the government or a social network for all the loopholes and dysfunctions that are affecting the Web. He said, “You can’t generalise. You can’t say, you know, social networks tend to be bad, tend to be nasty.” We need to find the root causes and to do exactly that we all need to come together as a global web community. “As the web reshapes, we are responsible for making sure that it is seen as a human right and is built for the public good”, he wrote in the open letter.
To address these problems, Berners-Lee has a radical solution. Back in November last year at the Web Summit, he, with The Web Foundation, introduced Contract for the Web. The contract aims to bring together governments, companies, and citizens who believe that there is a need for setting clear norms, laws, and standards that underpin the web. “Governments, companies, and citizens are all contributing, and we aim to have a result later this year,” he shared.
In theory, the contract defines people’s online rights and lists the key principles and duties government, companies, and citizens should follow. In Berners-Lee’s mind, it will restore some degree of equilibrium and transparency to the digital realm.
The contract is part of a broader project that Berners-Lee believes is essential if we are to ‘save’ the web from its current problems. First, we need to create an open web for the users who are already connected to the web and give them the power of fixing issues that we have with the existing web. Secondly, we need to bring the other half of the world, which is not yet connected to the web.
Many people are agreeing on the points Berners-Lee discussed in the open letter. Here is what some of the Twitter users are saying:
An interesting letter that really does make me think we need offline consequences for online actions that would not be acceptable in person. I'd love to hear more about your proposals. Does SOLID come into things with this or is this stuff beyond that?
— GirlyGeekdom (@girlygeekdom) March 12, 2019
The open & fiercely independent #WorldWideWeb infant of last century is slowly adopted by the surrogate gang of crooks restricting real knowledge & info filtered via few #privacy sucking for profit commercial apps & brands. RIP #Internet https://t.co/jxbFKp44HW #ForTheWeb #Web30
— SolutionPoint.in (@solutionpoint) March 12, 2019
Contract for the Web, as Berners-Lee says, is about “going back to the values”. His idea of bringing together governments, companies, and citizens to make the Web safer and accessible to everyone looks pretty solid.
Read the full open letter by Tim Berners-Lee on the Web Foundation’s website.