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Web turns 30 as inventor urges ethical 2.0

An international organization that gave rise to the World Wide Web marked its 30th anniversary with celebrations and calls to reboot its basic principles.

GENEVA (AN) — An international organization that gave rise to the World Wide Web marked the 30th anniversary of a globe-spanning invention with celebrations and calls to reboot its basic principles.

On March 12, 1989, while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, British computer expert Tim Berners-Lee, then 33, published his first proposal for an internet-based hypertext system to link and access information across different computers.

Soon afterward, he created the first Web server, browser and editor and launched html, http and URL. On April 30, 1993, the Geneva-based organization where he worked, known by its French acronym CERN, released WWW software freely into the public domain.

It would have been hard to predict then just how much of a profound impact that decision would have around the globe. A quarter-century later, CERN said, almost 2 billion websites exist now.

The tech revolution that Berner-Lee's World Wide Web unleashed has, of course, transformed everything from shopping, staying in touch with friends and keeping up with the news to voting in elections, running home appliances and making basic life decisions. But along with the technology has come an erosion in privacy and the rise of hate-fueled exchanges and computer hacking — putting all of it into a new light.

Since unleashing his invention on the world, Berner-Lee has continued to wrestle with the implications.

“Where is the balance between leaving the tech companies to do the right thing and regulating them? Where is the balance between freedom of speech and hate speech?” he asked a gathering at CERN to mark the anniversary.

Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist who serves as CERN's director-general, said the Web's invention and its subsequent transformation of our world also underscores the importance of scientists' fundamental research.

"The story of the Web highlights the power of fundamental research to drive innovation," she told the gathering, where she credited the international organization's "spirit of openness" for launching the Web. "Without that core value, we would not have the open and free Web that we are here to celebrate today."

What's next #ForTheWeb?

Leading up to the celebrations, Berners-Lee, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004, made it known that he believes the web's basic principles need a reboot —  sort of an ethical 2.0 update. He now has his own international organization, the World Wide Web Foundation, which is also headquartered in Geneva, that he uses as a platform to advocate for a free and open web for everyone.

The World Wide Web's 30th anniversary is both "a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go," he said in a statement.

It has become, he noted, a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank and more: It has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice and made daily life easier. But it also given rise to new means of carrying out crimes, scams and hate-mongering.

"Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good," said Berners-Lee.

"But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30," he said. "If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web."

Berners-Lee has been calling for a new global treaty, Contract for the Web, to establish the basic principles for using his invention — much like the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid a framework for human rights or the 1967 Outer Space Treaty created the basis for international space law.

"Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online," he said. "The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want."