The World Wide Web is 30 years old, and it's less free than ever
Looking back at the beginning of the internet's greatest technology revolutionBy Alfonso Maruccia 13 comments
Forward-looking: The original World Wide Web software platform was developed by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee while he was working at CERN. The novel information system was designed to promote faster and easier information sharing within the scientific community. It turned into an everyday commodity and entertainment routine for billions of people worldwide.
On April 30, 2023, the public version of the World Wide Web turned exactly 30 years old. In 1993, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) decided to release the "W3 software" into the public domain (PD), a seemingly simple decision that ignited one of the most fundamental technology revolutions in modern times. Though the landscape has changed significantly, the web continues to be the primary daily resource for over 5 billion people – two-thirds of the global population – who rely on the internet for research, industry, communication, and entertainment.
Also see: The World Wide Web Turns 30: A Timeline
The W3 platform was first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 as an information management system based on connections between existing pieces of information. The "hypertext system" was created on a NeXT machine in 1990, and within just a few years, it had won over numerous scientific and educational organizations beyond CERN. Of course, the main reason behind W3's early success was the fact that the Geneva-based institution decided to provide the software for free.
CERN has released the internal document that marked the PD status of the World Wide Web in 1993. Signed by Director of Research Walter Hoogland and Director of Administration Helmut Weber, it briefly described the W3 project as a "global computer-networked information system" offering a collaborative information system independent of hardware, software platform, or even physical location.
Access to information through W3 is provided "via a hypertext model," the document continues, on a worldwide network that is designed to work regardless of the information format and the client's operating system. The PD software release included a "basic" W3 client, a server, and a library of common code, for which CERN relinquished all intellectual property rights for both source and binary code.
In 1993, proper copyright licensing standards were still in their developmental phase. A year later, CERN adopted an open-source license for the next version of the software. This approach allowed the organization to retain copyright while enabling anyone to use and modify the W3 platform as they wished. However, the initial PD release has arguably allowed the web to "grow into the giant it is today," according to CERN.
Walter Hoogland now says that "the public release was the best thing" CERN could have done with the W3 project, a move that reflected CERN's core values of "open collaboration for the benefit of society."
That open collaboration and information-sharing principle of the original W3 platform is still alive today, even though the web is increasingly being transformed into siloed, proprietary platforms where information is collected, sold, or even weaponized for the benefit of Big Tech corporations or powerful, socially controversial individuals like Elon Musk. ChatGPT, the generative AI that leveraged the free web to create one of the most hyped technology products in recent times, is just the latest iteration of this troubling phenomenon.