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Happy 25th Birthday, World Wide Web! Here’s how you changed the world

Right now you’re doing something that wasn’t possible twenty five years ago. Not only because websites did not exist, but because the bones which form them were little more than a collection of ideas. HTML, JPEG, CSS, hyperlinks and web addresses had not yet been created, and even the ancient .GIF was just a few years old.

What would become known as the World Wide Web started in 1989 as an idea in the head of Tim Berners-Lee, who submitted a proposal to his managers at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) for “linked information systems” designed to help the organization keep track of data. The original proposal did not exactly envision the web as we know it today, but it did lay out the basic concepts like a lack of centralized control, hypertext and remote access across networks. Despite its age, the original proposal, which you can still read, provides some insight into how the web functions.

The web provided a common infrastructure everyone could use to connect and share information.

The original proposal was not accepted, but Mr. Berners-Lee did not give up. Instead, he refined his ideas into broadly applicable core concepts like HTML (the language used by web pages), URI (a string which identifies an online resource) and HTTP (a protocol web servers use to communicate). He also created a basic web browser called WorldWideWeb, the first web server and, by 1990, the first web page was available. Robert Cailliau, a Belgian computer scientist, helped Berners-Lee create a revised proposal in November of 1990.

This revision received support from CERN and by 1991, individuals outside the organization could join the World Wide Web, which inherited its name from Berners-Lee’s early browser. A pivotal moment came in 1993, when CERN announced that the Web would be made available for use by anyone royalty-free. Without this crucial decision, the web as we know it today might not have been possible.

Releasing the web into the world took development out of the hands of its creator, but Berners-Lee remained involved by founding the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994. This organization is an important force in the implementation of new web standards and Berners-Lee is still its Director, a position he’s now held for almost twenty years.

A drawing from Berners-Lee's original proposal to CERN.

A drawing from Berners-Lee’s original proposal to CERN.

The change unleashed by the World Wide Web was dramatic. While the Internet had technically existed for some time, the web provided a common infrastructure everyone could use to connect and share information, making the Internet accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem. Internet use by American adults, which stood at just 14 percent in 1995, has grown to 87 percent today. The number of websites in existence has grown from just 130 in 1993 to over 600 million today, and Google, founded in 1998, has seen its search volume grown from just under 10,000 per day in 1998 to over 3 billion per day in 2012.

But while the web has become so common that many users take it for granted, its future is not certain. One of the core concepts in Berners-Lee’s original proposal was the idea that all systems, regardless of hardware or software, need access to the same data. Without this, the web might become a series of secluded fiefdoms rather than a single, global entity.

Today, this concept is termed “net neutrality” and is often the battleground between companies that provide Internet bandwidth and web activists. Service providers want more control over the data that crosses their networks, but allowing this opens the door to tiered Internet packages that lock away certain portions of the web, effectively breaking one of its core ideals.

This battle has been fought before; early service providers like America Online tried unsuccessfully to corral users into network-provided content via confusing landing pages, ads and, in a few cases, direct manipulation of the content users saw (the Usenet group alt.aol.sucks, was hidden from the standard Usenet list and, when viewable in an alternative view, had its description changed to “Flames and complaints about America Online.”)

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New efforts to end net neutrality by companies like Comcast mimic these early attempts to restrict or direct online traffic, though with the key difference that today’s service providers are often also major content providers (Comcast, for example, is the largest U.S. cable provider and owns NBCUniversal).

A world without an open, neutral World Wide Web is difficult to imagine today, but it could happen if service providers have their way. What do you think? Will net neutrality stand and the web continue as it has, or will we look back another twenty-five years from now and see the early web as a golden era long gone by? 

(Image courtesy of Rene Jansa via Shutterstock.com)