Looking back at the history of the world wide web (which celebrates its 25th birthday on Wednesday) brings to mind that famous question from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
Like the Judean revolutionary complaining about his Roman overlords, it’s easy to see the downside. Spam, viruses, government surveillance, loss of privacy: the negatives are hard to ignore.
So it’s important to keep things in perspective. In the quarter of a century since Tim (later Sir Tim) Berners-Lee wrote his proposal for “a large hypertext database with typed links”, more than 2.5bn people are estimated to have come online and the media, communications and entertainment industries – to name just three – have been turned upside down. The web has played a big part in that.
As Sir Tim says in a video released to coincide with the anniversary, some have even called for access to the web to be considered a basic human right.
Now the negatives.
The web is facing a “a watershed moment”, concedes Anne Jellema, head of the World Wide Web Foundation. A network designed to help the European nuclear research centre, CERN, keep track of its voluminous research work, it is remarkable that it has evolved this far. But the cracks are certainly showing.
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, declared the death of the web nearly four years ago. At the time, Apple’s AppStore was two years old and the first iPad had just gone on sale, creating a walled garden that ran counter to the openness of the web.
It’s premature to call the web dead, but for many, the “app internet” has since grown to become the preferred route for going online.
Security and privacy concerns have also mushroomed since the Wired article was published. There has long been a question about how much people will be prepared to risk in return for the convenience of going online.
The answer, it seems, is: quite a lot. It’s impossible to tell to what extent online activity has been held back by the fears, but it wouldn’t do to count on this situation continuing indefinitely if things deteriorate further.
According to Ms Jellema, however, the biggest immediate threat comes from the revelations of widespread internet surveillance by the US and UK governments, courtesy of former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. She warns that as other countries become more protective about their citizens’ data – or simply use the Snowden leaks as an excuse to restrict online activity – the idea of a global information commons is at risk.
(Update: In an interview with The Guardian to mark the 25th anniversary, Sir Tim called for a “global constitution – a bill of rights” to protect the web from government interference.)
The extent to which this is already starting to happen is clear from a report* published on Wednesday by two academics from the University of California, Davis.
Their survey of data localisation in 12 countries and the European Union describes various rules that prevent information about citizens from being shipped abroad, from health information in Australia to mapping data in South Korea. This is their conclusion:
The era of a global Internet may be passing. Governments across the world are putting up barriers to the free flow of information across borders. Driven by concerns over privacy, security, surveillance and law enforcement, governments are erecting borders in cyberspace, breaking apart the World Wide Web.
Anupam Chander, one of the authors, says that while many of the rules predate the surveillance leaks, “a number of initiatives have been renewed because of the Snowden revelations”.
He also describes many of the rules as unworkable. They lead to a complex tangle of obligations that no company operating globally can hope to follow. One of the examples he quotes: a law in British Columbia that technically prevents one citizen from using Gmail to send information about another out of Canada without express permission.
Yet rules like these still have a chilling effect. Local businesses, says Mr Chander, may shy away from using Amazon Web Services or putting data into Google’s cloud if they feel it would risk breaking a national law.
How pressures like this will leave Sir Tim’s invention looking 25 years from now is anyone’s guess. As the web – and other digital domains – move from the edges of social, political and business life to the mainstream, it’s only natural for national governments to want to have a bigger say. If the result is a series of closed national information networks, the world will be the poorer.
* Breaking the Web: Data Localization Vs. the Global Internet, California International Law Center. Anupam Chander and Uyen P. Le
Get alerts on Technology sector when a new story is published