Nov 232010
 
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by Tim Berners-Lee (Scientific American)

The Web is critical not merely to the digital revolution but to our continued prosperity—and even our liberty. Like democracy itself, it needs defending.

The world wide web went live, on my physical desktop in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1990. It consisted of one Web siteand one browser, which happened to be on the same computer. The simple setup demonstrated a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere. In this spirit, the Web spread quickly from the grassroots up. Today, at its 20th anniversary, the Web is thoroughly integrated into our daily lives. We take it for granted, expecting it to “be there” at any instant, like electricity.

The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.

The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.

If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help. Not so. We create the Web, by designing computer protocols and software; this process is completely under our control. We choose what properties we want it to have and not have. It is by no means finished (and it’s certainly not dead). If we want to track what government is doing, see what companies are doing, understand the true state of the planet, find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention easily share our photos with our friends, we the public, the scientific community and the press must make sure the Web’s principles remain intact—not just to preserve what we have gained but to benefit from the great advances that are still to come.

Universality Is the Foundation

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