Baroness Martha Lane Fox and Rick Haythornthwaite with the NeXT Cube used to develop the world's first web page [Credit: Science Museum]

Challenges and opportunities as the Web turns 25

The World Wide Web turns 25 today, but despite the celebrations the system faces both challenges and opportunities.

On 12 March 1989, former CERN employee Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for the network that would eventually become the global system of interlinked hypertext documents that is now known as the World Wide Web.

Just a quarter of a century later and two in five of the world’s population are now connected, sharing 20 million photos and exchanging at least £9m worth of goods and services a minute, not to mention hundreds of millions of messages.

But concerns have been raised that government surveillance and regulation are threatening the Web’s founding principles of freedom, transparency and inclusion and a creaking infrastructure rooted in the previous century is putting users at risk.

“If we want a Web that is truly for everyone, then everyone must play a role in shaping its next 25 years,” said Sir Tim. “I hope this anniversary will spark a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the Web successful, and to unlock the Web's untapped potential.

“I believe we can build a Web that truly is for everyone: one that is accessible to all, from any device, and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans.”

Sir Tim wrote the first World Wide Web server, "httpd", and the first client "WorldWideWeb", which launched publicly just two-and-a-half years later, on 6 August 1991.

While other information retrieval systems which used the Internet – such as WAIS and Gopher – were available at the time, the Web's simplicity, along with the fact that the technology was made royalty-free in 1993, led to its rapid adoption and development.

“I think the most extraordinary thing that Tim did was to give it away. How many people would just give it away to be explored universally?” said Rick Haythornthwaite, chair of the Web Foundation – an organisation founded by Sir Tim in 2009 to promote the open Web.

“I think we would have stumbled our way through some kind of ecological warfare of proprietary systems, but there’s no guarantee that we’d have, as we do now, two out of five people around the world linked. What he has achieved has been extraordinary.”

But despite the anarchic founding principles of the Web, recent revelations about government surveillance, coupled with increasing regulation and censorship of online content, have raised fears that growing government control could stifle the system's disruptive power.

“It’s not inevitable, but it’s a predictable outcome without the population of the world putting up a fight,” said Haythornthwaite, who was speaking at an event at the Science Museum to unveil the NeXT Cube used by Sir Tim to develop the world's first web page. “I’m hopeful, provided the world grasps this moment and makes it very clear the Web we want has all these attributes.”

Former UK Digital Champion Baroness Martha Lane Fox, who resigned from the role last November, also spoke at the event, saying that the full potential of the Web was yet to be explored and that the world was at “the start of an adventure”.

“But we shouldn’t sleep walk into it, there are fundamental questions we have to address,” she added. “For me it’s about inclusion, about making sure everyone can get the benefits of the Web, but also about transparency – making sure that we as citizens understand the contract we enter into.”

Chief executive of the Web Foundation Anne Jellema said the organisation hopes to use the anniversary to “try to find solutions to the problems facing the next 25 years of the Web without fear of consequences.”

She highlighted defending the right to freedom of expression and privacy online, openness on the Web and ensuring that everybody can afford to get online as key battles in the coming years and she urged the public to "take action".

She said: "What we're asking people to do is to take action, get involved in the debate about what is the appropriate balance, what actions (should be taken) to protect our rights online. We cannot leave it to politicians."

In response to the concerns about the future of the Web, the Web Foundation has started the Web We Want campaign. Visit webwewant.org for more information on how to get involved.

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