30 years ago today, March 12, an engineer at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) had an idea that would change the world.  In a document entitled “Information Management: A Proposal”, CERN engineer Sir Tim Barnes-Lee laid out his vision for a system of managing and linking information. The system he envisioned would utilize an early version of HTML to link to data on different computers or servers utilizing the HTTP protocol. The proposal was called “vague but exciting” which, when looked at in retrospect, was a bit of an understatement. As it turns out, this proposal laid the foundation what we know today as the World Wide Web, or simply the Web.

The World Wide Web was built out of necessity

Like many inventions, the World Wide Web stemmed from necessity. At the time it was frustrating finding information at CERN, Barnes-Lee explained on an FAQ page at W3C. In those days’ information was stored on different computers, often with different interfaces and programs. While this system was functional, it left much room for improvement. However, it wasn’t until later that he envisioned the broader idea of utilizing his idea on the Internet to connect the world. When the proposal was laid out, it was not initially accepted an official CERN project. However, Barns-Lee’s supervisor granted permission to work on the project in his spare time. A year later he lead the development of the first server and the first website.

“I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it. Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. So finding out how things worked was really difficult.”.

–Tim Barnes-Lee

It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but….

Nobody could have imagined in 1989 what the World Wide Web could become. It is arguably the greatest development of the last 30 years, and has infiltrated almost every part of modern life. We communicate, conduct business, bank, and entertain ourselves in this virtual space. The web is a marvel worthy of celebration. However, in an open letter Barnes-Lee reminded us that for all of its greatness, the web has some flaws.

“It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go.”, cautions Barnes-lee, referring to the 30th anniversary of his creation.  In his letter he discusses the divide between those who have access to the web and those that don’t. He also went on to comment on the negative aspects of the web in that “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”

The Contract for the Web

Still involved in shaping the web, Sir Barnes-Lee is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This is the group that is responsible for maintaining web standards. He is also the Founding Director of the Web Foundation, a nonprofit who’s stated purpose is to advance the open web as a public good and a basic right. The Web Foundation recently launched a project called the Contract for the Web.  The idea is to bring all stakeholders to the table to “establish clear norms, laws and standards that underpin the web. The contract encourages Governments update laws for the digital age. It encourages corporations to put human rights, safety, and scientific fact ahead of profit. Finally the contract calls for citizens to be involved, and to hold those in power accountable. It is a lofty goal, but as Sir Barnes-Lee put it “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.”