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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

The World Wide Web Became Free 20 Years Ago Today

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You and I can access billions of Web pages, post blogs, write code for our own killer apps—in short, do anything we want on the Web—all for free! And we've enjoyed free reign because 20 years ago, today, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and his employer, the CERN physics lab in Geneva, published a statement that made the nascent “World Wide Web” technology available to every person, company and institution with no royalty or restriction.

Berners-Lee proposed the Web in 1989 and had a working version in Dec 1990. But by 1993 certain user groups were positioning themselves to try to monopolize the Web as a commercial product. Chief among them was the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, which had developed a browser called Mosaic that would later become Netscape. So Berners-Lee and CERN decided to release the code for the Web, believing that software development by hundreds of Web enthusiasts at the time, and millions of people in the future, would always stay one step ahead of any company that tried to control the Web or force people to pay to use it. The decision came at a very tense time that could have ruined the Web’s primary goal as a ubiquitous, open communications platform.

You can read the full back-story in a book that Berners-Lee and I wrote in 1999, Weaving the Web. As Tim explains in the book, when early Web enthusiasts gathered at technical meetings in 1993, “I was accosted in the corridors…. I listened carefully to people’s concerns. I also sweated anxiously behind my calm exterior…. On April 30, Robert [Cailliau] and I received a declaration, with a CERN stamp on it, signed by one of the directors, saying that CERN agreed to allow anybody to use the Web protocol and code free of charge, to create a server or browser, to give it away or sell it, without any royalty or other constraint. Whew!”

With that single step, the Web exploded across the universe. Other information systems that used the Internet, such as Gopher and WAIS, soon faded into the Web’s wake. And no company, not even Microsoft, has ever been able to out-develop the masses.

To celebrate the anniversary, CERN has posted the declaration it sent to Berners-Lee. It is also showing off original Web technology, on a page that has a photo of Berners-Lee from the early days and the NeXT computer he programmed the Web on. The site links to the written pitch Berners-Lee made to CERN, simply titled “Information Management: A Proposal,” for internal funding so he could develop a “wide-area hypermedia information retrieval” system (I've shown a small image of the cover, left). Another CERN page shows a copy of the world’s first Web site, which was about the WWW project itself. Berners-Lee also wrote a treatise for Scientific American in 2010 explaining why the Web must forever remain free and how to make sure it stays that way.

Image of the original Web proposal, courtesy of CERN

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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