Untangling the Web from the viewpoint of Tim Berners-Lee


On this day, 30 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee submitted his report with a dreary title “Information Management” to his boss at the European Physics Laboratory CERN.

Basically, the proposal described how the system was capable of revolutionising the way people communicated. A couple of years later, went on to be known as the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee wouldn’t have expected that this intricate system would go on to really revolutionise the world and become a vital part in everyone’s life, not specifically confined to the Physicists of CERN.

At the time, the internet had already been on the verge, running up front, and growing for a couple of decades. People had sent emails, shared files, ran message boards, and even created the first emoticons. But it wasn’t until the WWW came along that internet really began to take off in people’s lives. Hypertexts, links, webpages etc. made it easier to find information related to any topic, on the go, based on their unique Uniform Resource Locators (URLs). Most importantly, since the core code was made public, anyone could design one’s own webpage or even a browser of his own (just as in Google’s Android case.)

But the founder has mixed feelings about what the internet has become today, and is not at all happy with the way his vision has been expanding lately.

Actually, what really concerns him the most is the web’s privacy, and what looms ahead in way of the World Wide Web’s bright future. In an open letter to mark the anniversary, he said that many people felt unsure about whether the web was a force for good?” Implicitly referring to the Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica Scandal, he said the editorial power of Facebook’s algorithm was “scary”. “At 30, www is not the web we wanted. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web. It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future ahead.” he wrote.

Where does the concerning part come?

“Every time I hear that somebody has managed to acquire the domain name of their new enterprise for $50,000 instead of $500, I sigh, and feel that money’s not going to a good cause.”

He has a minor regret that instead of paying much attention to privacy or steps to publicize the web, he instead focused on bootstrapping the web unto something that could handle a lot of users very quickly: by building on a pre-existing service of assignment of internet addresses, the Domain Name System (DNS). Lee always wanted Web to be free, open source, free from any private organisations trying to use it for commercial purposes. He always used to say that the internet is for everyone. Everyone has the right to use the internet. Only if the web was managed benevolently.

Keeping privacy aside, what’s ridiculously breaking here is the way people have to misuse the web for their commercial purposes. They invest by buying up the domains they think various entrepreneurs and startups might be interested in buying; even building an AI that would assume the most common names that could possibly be bought by aspiring entrepreneurs, grab the domain names and later on, sell them at an expensive price to them.

Every year, on the anniversary of World Wide Web’s creation, Lee publishes an open letter to the media, marvelling at the perverse incentives it provides as it is used by millions of people worldwide and shares his vision for the future of the web. But unlike previous letters, this one is broader in scope, and expresses concern in which the web is moving, at a deep level. Now he’s not as confident. He’s become increasingly worried about the web’s potential to live up to his vision as a tool for humanity. He insists he’s still an optimist (in the long-term), in part because he thinks the web will inevitably evolve.

While the web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice and made our daily lives easier, it has also created an opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread heresy & hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit. Berners-Lee broke down the problems faced by the Web into 3 categories:-

  1. Those arising from deliberate, malicious intent, like state-sponsored hacking, criminal frauds, online harassment etc. These problems, however, do not intrinsically harm the integrity of the Web but make it fragile. Lee says it is impossible to completely eradicate these malicious practices from the Web as it is very, very hard to imagine the ways in which your server can be attacked. But a bit of code and laws in order can minimize them.
  2. The trend of click-bait and spreading misinformation that goes viral in no time. This is spread by commercial organizations who are in dire need to generate more ad revenues.
  3. The third, and the main problem faced by many platforms right now. You create systems thoughtfully and benevolently, but despite your best efforts, they result in negative outcomes. Like you develop Quora, a Q&A platform, where people are supposed to behave in a specific way, and they do for some time. But as the traffic of the system increases, the quality of users using the service decreases, and you find them behaving in a nasty way, asking bullshit questions, showing an outraged and polarised tone etc. But sometimes, even a system as simple as Twitter, becomes wildly, wildly effective. (See the status of #MeToo campaign right now.)

You find Reddit, a social network extensively used for sharing memes and entertaining stuff, effectively transforming when you notice a subreddit being used for good, for changing the lives of people in a wholesome way. That’s the thing about the web. You can’t assume it to be good or bad. There are more webpages on the internet right now than there are neurons in your brain. As the number increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to survey each webpage and find flaws in it. As Berners-Lee continues:-
“Pretty soon people are contacting you about cyberbullying and saying their lives are miserable on Twitter because of the way that works. And then another few iterations of the Earth going around the sun, and you find that the oppressive regimes are using social networks in order to spy on and crack down on dissidents before the dissidents could even get round to organising.”
In conclusion, he says, “You can’t generalise. You can’t say, you know, social networks tend to be bad, tend to be nasty.”

Web 2.0: The next-level webbing…

The one created by Berners-Lee, Web 1.0, has now jumped to the next level, which is both good and bad. Web 2.0 describes World Wide Web websites that emphasize user-generated content, usability (ease of use, even by non-experts), and interoperability (this means that a website can work well with other products, systems and devices) for end users. A Web 2.0 website may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to the first generation of Web 1.0-era websites where people were limited to the passive viewing of content. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites and social media sites (e.g., Quora, Reddit, Facebook), blogs, wikis, video sharing sites (e.g., YouTube), hosted services, Web applications (“apps”), collaborative consumption platforms.

Web 2.0 does not refer to an update to any technical specification, but to changes in the way Web pages are designed and used. Tim Berners-Lee has become the most prominent critic to point out that the Web 2.0 emperor is naked. Berners-Lee has dismissed Web 2.0 as ‘useless jargon nobody can explain’ and a set of technology that tries to achieve exactly the same thing as “Web 1.0.” Web 2.0 is, in Berners-Lee’s definition, purely a blog and wiki thing.
According to him, Web 1.0 is about connecting computers, while Web 2.0 is about connecting people. “And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.”

How Lee tends to solve this problem?

Berners-Lee, who now splits his time shuttling between the U.S. and Britain as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford, has been thinking a lot lately about the power of his invention and the Pandora’s Box it has opened. In 2017, he wrote a sort of online manifesto that detailed three major challenges for the current state of the web: personal data privacy, the spread of misinformation and the lack of transparency in online political advertising. “I spent the first 20 years of the web telling people, just give everybody unfettered nondiscriminatory access to the internet. Let people build websites, let them link to each other. Good stuff will happen,” said Berners-Lee.

It’s “crazy to imagine the web will remain just as it is,” he said. Berners-Lee says the people designing the current networks need to adjust their strategies and have to rethink their roles and ensure they make online spaces into “places where nice things happen.” But Berners-Lee doesn’t believe the web’s current challenges can be fixed by tech experts alone. “It’s only gonna happen because lots of people care about it very much, and it’s not just people writing code, it’s people writing laws, teachers, people in the street,” he said.

Tim’s brilliant creation has grown into a troubled adolescent – and Tim sees it as his personal mission to put the web back on the right track. He does a thing called commitment to the original cause. Let’s see how long it works…

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