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The Networked World - 25th Anniversary
John Cioffi | Bob Metcalfe | Vint Cerf | Vic Hayes | Radia Perlman | Martin Cooper | Tim Berners-Lee

More than two decades after inventing the Web, Berners-Lee fights to keep it open

Catching up with the Web's inventor 21 years after its creation

By Brad Reed, Network World
May 09, 2011 06:03 AM ET
Tim Berners-Lee

Network World - We often consider 21 to be a coming-of-age year, and the World Wide Web's impending 21st birthday will be no different.

Read Network World's 25th anniversary package with more living legends

Network industry timeline of the past 25 years

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.

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