Celebrating 25 years of going online

Sir Tim Berners Lee EMN-140314-124118001
Sir Tim Berners Lee EMN-140314-124118001

The 25th anniversary of the world wide web was celebrated around the globe last week.

The milestone was marked on Wednesday, a quarter of a century since it was first proposed by British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

For anybody under the age of 20 it is hard to imagine what life would be like without the web, which is not to be confused with the internet – a massive chain of networks which the web uses.

But when Sir Tim first submitted his idea while working at Swiss physics laboratory, Cern, the response from his boss was the brief: “Vague, but exciting.”

He went on to develop an invention that has revolutionised the lives of billions, with two out of five people in the world now connected.

Based on his earlier programme for storing information called Enquire, it was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of “hypertext”documents.

Sir Tim wrote the first world wide web server, “httpd”, and the first client “WorldWideWeb”, a browser/editor. It launched publicly just two-and-a-half years later, on 6 August 1991.

Physics graduate Sir Tim originally developed the web to meet the demand for information-sharing between physicists in universities and institutes around the world.

Other information retrieval systems which used the internet – such as WAIS and Gopher – were available at the time, but the web’s simplicity, along with the fact that the technology was made royalty-free in 1993, led to its rapid adoption and development. By late 1993, there were more than 500 known web servers, and the world wide web accounted for 1 per cent of internet traffic. Two decades later, there are an estimated 630 million websites.

Recent government statistics show that last year 36 million adults (73 per cent) in Britain accessed the internet every day, with 21 million households (83 per cent) having access in 2013.

In 2009, Sir Tim founded the World Wide Web Foundation which has a mission statement to “establish the open web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely”. Its Web Index, first launched in 2012, measures how well different countries around the world are harnessing the benefits of an open and universal web and last year he spoke of it having highlighted how the internet and social media were being used to expose wrongdoing in the world – leaving some governments threatened.

Speaking in November, he said: “One of the most encouraging findings of this year’s Web Index is how the web and social media are increasingly spurring people to organise, take action and try to expose wrongdoing in every region of the world.

“But some governments are threatened by this, and a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy.

“Bold steps are needed now to protect our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and association online.”

That month he also said he backed whistleblowers such as former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden who use the internet to “protect society’s interests”.

Last year Sir Tim was jointly awarded the inaugural £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering along with fellow internet pioneers Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Marc Andreessen and Louis Pouzin.