The Web @ 25: The man behind it

By Frederick Mordi

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It has been 25 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the English computer scientist invented the World Wide Web. The invention, which was a solution to a problem that he noticed when he was working at the Switzerland-based CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, has since revolutionised communication in the world.

As a child, it is said that Berners-Lee loved fiddling with electronics. He picked interest in computers as he grew up, no doubt influenced by his parents, who worked on the first commercially-built computer in the world, called the Ferranti Mark 1. It is therefore not surprising that Berners-Lee would become a genius.

After graduating with a first-class degree in physics from the University of Oxford, Berners-Lee got a job at a telecommunications company. He later moved to CERN. It was while at CERN that he came up with the idea of the World Wide Web to help fellow scientists that came from different parts of the world, to exchange data and results, after they must have returned to their own countries. In 1989, he submitted a proposal to his management, which specified new kind of technologies that would make the Internet accessible to people. But his proposal, as is often the case with new ideas, was not enthusiastically received at first. He did not give up until it gained acceptance.

“Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN,” he once said in an interview. “Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”

CERN later made the World Wide Web technology available for global use, having realised the importance of the invention. This has undoubtedly changed the world today in terms of how people source for news, transact business, and even engage in relationships. Interestingly, since the Web first opened to new users in 1991, Berners-Lee has ensured that it is free to use for everyone, even though he would have made a fortune by commercialising it. Such is the magnanimity of the man who invented the Web.

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Though his motive for inventing the Web was altruistic, current realities seem to be threatening its use. Berners-Lee is using the 25th anniversary of the Web to promote net neutrality, which is a belief that customers’ browsing activities constitute basic human right and as such should neither be controlled nor monitored, without their expressed consent. He is also an ardent promoter of greater openness, accountability and transparency in government.

“Threats to the Internet, such as companies or governments that interfere with or snoop on Internet traffic, compromise basic human network rights,” he reportedly said in another interview. “Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.”

Berners-Lee is working with a coalition of public and private organisations that includes Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, to increase accessibility to the Internet, particularly in developing countries, based on his belief that the invention should be for everyone’s use. He is using the Web’s 25th anniversary to champion the Internet bill of rights, to ensure greater privacy for users.

“If a company can control your access to the Internet,” Berners-Lee added at the ‘Web We Want’ festival on the future of the Internet in London, “if they can control which websites you go to, then they have tremendous control over your life. If a government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages, then they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power.”

Only a few days ago, precisely on December 11, 2014, during the public release of the 2014-15 edition of the annual Web Index, which measures the World Wide Web’s contribution to social, economic and political progress in countries, he restated his call for the ‎Internet to be recognised as a basic ‎human right.

He currently holds the position of professor of engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; professor of Web and Internet Science, University of Southampton, United Kingdom; and founder and director of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body that develops guidelines for the development of the Internet. In addition, he is founder and director of World Wide Web Foundation, which seeks to make the Web affordable and accessible.

For his pioneering work on the Web, Berners-Lee was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he was given due recognition as the ‘Inventor of the World Wide Web.’

Berners-Lee, who is 59 years old, is married with two children.

 

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