James Boyle: Web’s never-to-be-repeated revolution

The web is having a birthday. This month, we will have the 15th anniversary of the creation of the first web page. It is the birthday of Tim Berners-Lee’s amazing idea that there could be a worldwide web, linked not by spider silk but by hypertext links and transfer protocols and uniform resource locators.

How should we celebrate? We are too close to the web to understand it. And those who lost money in the dotcom boom greet any celebration of the web the way a person with a hangover greets a mention of the drink of which they overindulged. The knowledge of shameful excess produces a renunciant puritanism. No more tequila or web romanticism for me!

That is a shame, because there are three things that we need to understand about the web. First, it is more amazing than we think. Second, the conjunction of technologies that made the web successful was extremely unlikely. Third, we probably would not create it, or any technology like it, today. In fact, we would be more likely to cripple it, or declare it illegal.

Why is the web amazing? Because of what people have built on it. Some might remember when the most exciting sites on the web had pictures of coffee pots in universities far away. (“See,” one would proudly say to a neophyte, “the pot is empty and we can see that from here! This changes everything!”) But now? When is the last time you looked in an encyclopedia? When is the last time that your curiosity – what is the collective noun for larks? Is Gerald Ford alive? Why is the sky blue? – remained unsatisfied for more than a moment? (An “exaltation”, yes and look it up for yourself.) Much of that information is provided by volunteers who delight in sharing their knowledge. Consider the range of culture, science and literature – from the Public Library of Science and Wikipedia, to Project Gutenberg and the National Map. The web does not bring us to the point where all can have access to, and can add to, the culture and knowledge of the world. We cannot ensure global literacy let alone global connectedness. But it brings us closer.

Why is the web unlikely? Prepare for a moment of geek-speak. For most of us, the web is reached by general­purpose computers that use open protocols – standards and languages that are owned by no one – to communicate with a network (there is no central point from which all data comes) whose mechanisms for transferring data are also open.

Imagine a network with the opposite design. Imagine that your terminal came hardwired from the manufacturer with a particular set of programs and functions. No experimenting with new technologies developed by third parties – instant messaging, Google Earth, flash animations … Imagine also that the network was closed and flowed from a central source. More like pay-television than web. No one can decide on a whim to create a new site. The New York Times might secure a foothold on such a network. Your blog, or Wikipedia, or Jib Jab need not apply. Imagine that the software and protocols were proprietary. You could not design a new service to run on this system, because you do not know what the system is and, anyway, it might be illegal. Imagine something with all the excitement and creativity of a train timetable.

The web developed because we went in the opposite direction – towards openness and lack of centralised control. Unless you believe that some invisible hand of technological inevitability is pushing us towards openness – I am a sceptic – we have a remarkable historical conjunction of technologies.

Why might we not create the web today? The web became hugely popular too quickly to control. The lawyers and policymakers and copyright holders were not there at the time of its conception. What would they have said, had they been? What would a web designed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation or the Disney Corporation have looked like? It would have looked more like pay-television, or Minitel, the French computer network. Beforehand, the logic of control always makes sense. “Allow anyone to connect to the network? Anyone to decide what content to put up? That is a recipe for piracy and pornography.”

And of course it is. But it is also much, much more. The lawyers have learnt their lesson now. The regulation of technological development proceeds apace. When the next disruptive communications technology – the next worldwide web – is thought up, the lawyers and the logic of control will be much more evident. That is not a happy thought.

The writer is professor of law at Duke Law School, a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Public Domain and a board member of Creative Commons

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