We often consider 21 to be a coming-of-age year, and the World Wide Web's impending 21st birthday will be no different.
The Web will officially hit adulthood this coming Christmas, which will mark 21 years since computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee first initiated communications between an HTTP client and a Web server, thus marking the dawn of the so-called "information age" that defined the 1990s. The linking of hypertext with transmission control protocol is now so routine that we forget how revolutionary it really was at the time. Even Berners-Lee, in a question-and-answer session posted on the World Wide Web Consortium in 2008, seemed to downplay his own role in creating such a world-changing technology.
"Lots of hypertext systems had been made which just worked on one computer, and didn't link all the way across the world," he wrote. "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and -- ta-da! -- the World Wide Web... the inventing it was easy. The amazing thing which makes it work is that so many people actually have made web servers, and that they all work the same way, on the Internet. They all use HTTP."
Berners-Lee today maintains that the only way the Web will remain a viable force into the future will be if it maintains that spirit of collaboration and openness that helped it to become so successful more than two decades ago. After all, he notes, his goal in creating the Web was to make something that could be used by everyone and not just an academic, business or government elite.
"I didn't know what would happen [with the Web] but I knew I wanted it to be a universal space," he says. "I knew from the get go that it was very important that it not be relegated to any particular circle."
Because of this, Berners-Lee has been one of the foremost advocates of network neutrality, which is the principle that ISPs should not be allowed to block or degrade Internet traffic from their competitors in order to speed up their own. The push for net neutrality began in 2005, when incumbent telecom carriers successfully lobbied the FCC to repeal common carrier rules that required the incumbents to allow ISPs such as EarthLink to buy space on their broadband networks at discount rates. Because small ISPs are no longer guaranteed access to the big carriers' infrastructure at reasonable rates, Berners-Lee and other net neutrality advocates say net neutrality must be enforced to make sure the big carriers don't exert too much power over how the Web functions.
"This is a question of principle, it's a right to be able to access [the Web] anywhere, and it's a question of keeping the market open," he says. "Whether you happen to be getting it over wired or Wi-Fi or Mi-Fi, it doesn't have any bearing on the principles of free speech and connectivity."
Berners-Lee thinks that Web connectivity ought to be a basic human right that he has recently compared to the right to access water. He points to the role the Web played in the recent overthrow of the Egyptian government as a key reason to view Internet access not merely as a luxury but as a vital component of free speech.
"I listened to [Egyptian opposition leader] Mohamed ElBaradei talk recently and he was asked whether the revolution would have happened without the Web and he said no," Berners-Lee explains. "It worked because a lot of people figured out how to play their cards so they could enact change without violent conflict."
But Berners-Lee says that if ISPs are allowed to play favorites and offer a faster Internet for certain preferred websites over others, it could have a dampening effect on peoples' ability to get accurate information and thus harm democracy itself. In particular he points to the dangers that a non-neutral 'net might have during elections, when so many people rely upon the Web for their news.
"Some people worry that without net neutrality during election time that individual political parties might be able to buy bad connectivity for their opponents," he says. "Imagine that parties will be able to use campaign dollars to prevent the Internet from becoming a neutral space for democracy."
But even though he views access to a neutral Web as vital, he realizes that he and his fellow net neutrality advocates have a lot of work to do in the sphere of public relations. After all, even the watered-down net neutrality regulations passed by the Federal Communications Commission last year are currently in danger of being repealed in Congress.
"Watching a lot of people, they don't understand what net neutrality is," he says. "They say, 'Net neutrality, you're the people who want everything for free,' or 'you're the people who don't want network management.' This sort of thing has been spread about very effectively and, I'd imagine, professionally by those who want to make walled gardens."