Next year will see the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, invented by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee when he was working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. His vision of marrying hypertext – linking pages of information – with the Internet, was slow to take off but is now a ubiquitous part of all our lives. The Web, as it’s come to be known, has provided a platform for the spread of social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter that have unleashed a host of challenges for society that Berners-Lee (seen below left, © Die Welt) could never have imagined.
In today’s edition of Science, Jonathan Zittrain, who is professor of computer science and international law at Harvard, has published an editorial in which he argues that “the decades-long global expansion of the Internet and the World Wibe Web [is] breaking down.” He has identified three keys to understanding the reasons for the breakdown. The first key is the “procrastination principle” in which the developers of the Web established a set of simple communication protocols and then allowed the markets to “work their magic.” The second key is the layered architecture of the networks, in which software apps don’t need to know anything about what is happening “below,” while the hardware infrastructure is oblivious to everything “above.”
The third key identified by Zittrain, and flowing from the first two, is decentralisation, in which the Internet and the Web are designed to avoid gatekeepers, thereby limiting the influence of regulatory bodies. His concerns are clear: “Today, the principles of layers and decentralisation are badly fraying, which risks transforming the principle of procrastination into one of abdication.”
While some have suggested that large players should be broken up by regulators, Berners-Lee has recently launched a “Contract for the Web,” encouraging governments, companies and individuals to focus on Internet accessibility and user privacy. Encouragingly, Google and Facebook have already signed up. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!