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At 35, the web is broken, but its inventor hasn’t given up hope of fixing it yet

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the first web browser 1991

CERN

In 1989, the internet was already years old, but it looked nothing like it does today. The internet we use today owes much of its look and feel to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ and his creation, the World Wide Web. The web’s launch can be traced back 35 years to Berners-Lee’s paper, Information Management: A Proposal.

Berners-Lee wasn’t out to change the world. He simply wanted to create an easy way to share information at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, popularly known as  CERN. His solution was an internet-distributed hypertext system. We know it as the web. 

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It took several years to go from an idea on paper to a working system. By 1993, the web was a going concern. When I became the first person to write a popular introduction to the web, there were only two web servers in existence. 

By the time I wrote the book Inside the World Wide Web in 1994, the internet had exploded in popularity. It went from being something only techies used to the foundations of today’s ubiquitous web. Everyone wanted to be on the internet. 

As Berners-Lee put it in 2024, the web was built on “the intention to allow for collaboration, foster compassion and generate creativity – what I term the 3 C’s. It was to be a tool to empower humanity. The first decade of the web fulfilled that promise – the web was decentralized with a long tail of content and options, it created small, more localized communities, provided individual empowerment, and fostered huge value.”

Berners-Lee continued, “In the past decade, instead of embodying these values, the web has instead played a part in eroding them.” He attributes that to the “dysfunction caused by the web being dominated by the self-interest of several corporations.”

You can see it for yourself. In the web’s early days, numerous new companies sprang up on the internet’s fertile soil. Today, both the internet and the stock market are dominated by Meta (Facebook), Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Alphabet (Google) –aka “MAMAA”. You can also revise the old FAANG — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google — to the new FAANG –Facebook, Amazon, Apple, NVIDIA, and Google. No matter how you acronym it, this is an internet economy that belongs to the major powers, not small startups. 

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Berners-Lee did acknowledge — on his creation’s 30th birthday — that the web became “a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more.” Unfortunately, he noted, “It has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.” The web’s ugly side can easily be seen with a quick glance at such social networks as X, formerly Twitter; Reddit; and Nextdoor.

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) hasn’t helped. Indeed, Berners-Lee thinks AI has only made things worse. “The rapid advancement of AI has exacerbated these concerns, proving that issues on the web are not isolated but rather deeply intertwined with emerging technologies.” 

Still, Berners-Lee hopes for better. “It would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.”

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How? By addressing two problems, he notes:   

The first is the extent of power concentration, which contradicts the decentralized spirit I originally envisioned. This has segmented the web, with a fight to keep users hooked on one platform to optimize profit through the passive observation of content. This exploitative business model is particularly grave in this year of elections that could unravel political turmoil. Compounding this issue is the second, the personal data market that has exploited people’s time and data with the creation of deep profiles that allow for targeted advertising and ultimately control over the information people are fed.

But what can we do about it? Berners-Lee’s proposal: “We must break down data silos to encourage collaboration, create market conditions in which a diversity of options thrive to fuel creativity and shift away from polarizing content to an environment shaped by a diversity of voices and perspectives that nurture empathy and understanding.”

Specifically, this can be done by embracing a new paradigm that puts individuals ahead of business models. This isn’t just an ideal; it’s already becoming a reality. Technologies that serve and empower us all — such as the new model social networks Bluesky and Mastodon — don’t feed off advertising and business engagement but still create communities. GitHub provides online collaboration tools and podcasts that contribute to community knowledge.

 “The time to act and embrace this transformative potential is now,” Berners-Lee concluded.

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Another part of the answer to reforming the web is the Solid Protocol. This specification provides everyone with their own personal online data store (POD). “With Solid,” Berners-Lee explained, “individuals decide how their data is managed, used, and shared. This approach has already begun to take root, as seen in Flanders, where every citizen now has their own POD.” The name of the game with PODs is to put us — rather than corporations — in control of our personal data.

Solid is backed by Berners-Lee’s company, Inrupt. Under its guidance, the plan is for Solid to enable the web to include identity management, access control, and universal data standards. It will decouple data from corporate-controlled applications so that data is organized and managed around individuals.

He knows this is easier said than done. “It requires support for the people leading the reform, from researchers to inventors to advocates. We must amplify and promote these positive use cases, and work to shift the collective mindset of global citizens. The Web Foundation has and will continue to support and accelerate this emergent system and the people behind it. However, there is an urgent need for others to do the same, to back the morally courageous leadership that is rising, collectivize their solutions, and overturn the online world being dictated by profit to one that is dictated by the needs of humanity.”

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Can techno-idealism become reality? I have my doubts, but we can try. That’s what Berners-Lee is striving for. He transformed the world once, and perhaps together, we can transform it for the better once again.


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