Did you know that tomorrow the Internet turns 30? It does. 30 years ago in 1989 a 34 year old British computer scientist working at CERN in Switzerland proposed a system called hyperlinks to allow the sharing of information via computer. Tim Berners-Lee certainly did not imagine what this innovation would become and how it revolutionize the world that we live in and despite all of the bad that has come of it we can’t imagine how we could live without it today.

Tim Berners-Lee

Born in 1955 in London, he was introduced to the world of computers at a young age as both of his parents worked on the world’s first commercially built supercomputer. By tinkering with a model railway as a child he learned about electronics and graduated from Oxford University in 1976 with a degree in physics. His first jobs out of college (or university as they would say across the pond) was as a telecommunications engineer and creating typesetting software for printers. In 1980 he became an independent contractor at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and while there he proposed a project based on hypertext to make file sharing and updating information easier amongst the researchers there. He wrote a prototype called ENQUIRE but his time at CERN was brief.

Berners-Lee returned to England to work at a computer systems company while gaining experience in computer networking. CERN though came calling again and in 1984 he returned with a fellowship role. With CERN becoming the largest internet node in Europe he saw another opportunity to introduce hypertext, submitting a proposal on March 12, 1989 with Belgian computer engineer Robert Cailliau and this time it was allowed to go forward.

Hypertext and Hyperlinks?

Before Berners-Lee computers were able to share information but there was no easy way to do it or any universal standard. Hypertext changed that. This is text that is displayed in such a way that an electronic reader can easily understand it. This can include text, tables, images and hyperlinks and used tags to differentiate different types. Hyperlinks are links that go to other pages, which interconnect different pages. Following hyperlinks allows users to navigate hypertext. Berners-Lee was not the only person working on such a project but he was the first to be able to implement it successfully.

By creating this and standardizing this a new programming language was created, Hypertext Markup Language or HTML. HTML documents could be saved on a server and rendered for web viewing via a web browser, which was also pioneered at CERN. Berners-Lee and Cailliau developed the first browser called WorldWideWeb in November of 1990. When combined with other new innovations like the Transmission Control Protocols (TCP) as well as a new Domain Naming System (DNS) the World Wide Web was born, in theory at least.

The First Website

It took time to take the web from theoretical to real. The first website, info.cern.ch was put online on August 6, 1991. It was an explanation of the World Wide Web, hypertext, technical information to create your own page and an explanation on how to search the web. What we know today as the Internet was born but very few people were able to use it. CERN was also the first web hosting service hosting scientific papers, information about experiments and a phonebook. The first web server outside of Cern was brought online in December 1991 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.

CERN made the decision to make HTML and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) available to everyone and royalty free. This decision may have cost them billions of dollars but it spurred the Internet on and allowed it to flourish. HTTP still is the dominant web protocol to this day. Just look at your web address.

The Web Grew, Is Growing and Will Continue to Grow

While a system to link scientists to share their work was of great importance to humanity the web had the potential to do so much more. By the time the first web page was introduced there were already people that were able to get online through a commercial service called The World. As computer technology exploded more people had the ability to connect to the web and more content found its way onto the web. By 1995 there were over 23,000 websites and 40 million users able to access it, with over half of them in the United States.

Speed of course was key and as more speed became available more varied content appeared, which was not always good though it did spur innovations that we take for granted today. Plain text turned into images which turned into video which turned into streaming services. Today over 4 billion people have access to the World Wide Web and nearly 2 billion websites exist. China has the most web users with over 800 million people online and Asia has nearly half of the web users online. Iceland is the only nation in which every citizen has access to the Internet.

Taking The Bad With The Good

Berners-Lee has been active with the web since it went online. He helped to found the W3C to help create standards to improve the quality of the online experience championing royalty-free standards to make the web available to more people. Over the years though he was watched his creation become “hijacked by crooks” by the spreading of disinformation, hate and the unscrupulous trying to make easy money. His creation has allowed people to have their voices amplified and that has not always been a good thing.

He has used the World Wide Web Foundation, which Berners-Lee founded to launch two major efforts. The first is the Contract For The Web which calls on governments to make the web available to everyone while respecting their citizens privacy. Tech companies will also be responsible for upholding these rights and providing positive innovation. Citizens will become creators and collaborators to help build safe and welcoming environment. His other vision is called Solid, which is intended to give citizens control of their information rather than tech companies.

Berners-Lee says that outlawing fake news is not possible as cultures and their values are simply too different to do such a thing but his proposals can hopefully make the Internet a more inviting place for the everyone. Of course governments, tech companies and individual users have to do their part and that will be the tough part. But with the 30th birthday of the Internet tomorrow maybe, just maybe, the right people can make peace and take the lead to make the Internet a better place for everyone in the world and if that can happen who knows what else could?

So Happy 30th to the World Wide Web. May the next 30 spur on just as much innovation but without so much angst.

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