30th Anniversary of the world wide web

20 Mar 2019

Event report

The 30th Anniversary of the World Wide Web was celebrated with an event at which which Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Dr Robert Cailliau, together with other web pioneers and leading experts, aimed to explore the challenges and opportunities of innovative technologies, past, present, and future.

Introductory remarks were addressed by Dr Fabiola Ginotti (Director, CERN) who recalled the story and evolution of the web as an example of the power of research to drive innovation. Basic science brings technological developments in areas that change societies in many important ways. She argued that the web has been a means to bring education and reduce inequality due to the spirit of openness embedded into it. However, the web is in constant evolution and needs further reflection and attention.

Mr Frédéric Donck (Regional Bureau Director for Europe, Internet Society) moderated the first panel discussion in which the early days of the web were recalled and their implications on the way we collaborate and share knowledge today in society as a whole.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (Inventor of the Web, Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)) talked about the vision that lead to the creation of the web. Furthermore, he explained that back then, CERN represented the perfect place with the smartest workstations in an extreme system-interoperability environment. He concluded by saying that humanity needs to understand what to believe and what to do. For figuring out what to believe, science plays the crucial role; while for understanding what to do, democracy is the key.

Dr Robert Cailliau (Web Pioneer) explained that there were a lot of systems at the time, which however, were limited to one machine. What made Berners-Lee’s idea revolutionary was the broadening of the scope.

Dr Jean-François Groff (Web Pioneer and Entrepreneur) explained how the initial stages of the web were refused and rejected by international conferences with the claim that the web would have broken the Internet. Furthermore, he stressed that the success of the web relies on its openness feature, of being a public domain: the highest sharable thing imaginable.

Dr Lou Montulli (Web Pioneer and Entrepreneur) explained that the openness of the web has lead to the creation of numerous products that have allowed average people with no specific technical expertise to access the information they were looking for.

Dr Zeynep Tufekci (Technologist, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, and Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society) argued that the challenges posed by the web come from the very features that made it successful: openness and connectivity. The web is becoming increasingly centralised, with a few big players, such as Facebook and Google, increasingly implementing surveillance systems. Moreover, the web was built for academics in a environment featured by trust; as a result, validation mechanisms were not implemented and this leads us to the current challenges of false information.

The event then featured a conversation moderated by Mr Bruno Giussani (Global Curator, TED; Chairman, Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH)) with Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee explained that there should be greater analysis of how people interact as this can have implications on social interaction and social movements that start from the Internet. Finally, he argued that the contract for the web is to give access to the people who are currently not connected, while addressing the democratic and social challenges posed by the malicious use of the Internet.

The second panel discussion was moderated by Giussani and focused on technology evolution, looking at the future challenges and opportunities.

Dr Zeynep Tufekci (Technologist, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, and Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society) underlined the shift from the ‘magical’ moments that featured the first experience of interrelating with the web, to the current fears and concerns connected to the use of personal data in exchange for online services. She argued that the current problems are represented by collective harm, reflecting the fact that the problem is not society and the way it is organised. Finally, she underlined that the key aspects to analyse when addressing the role of the private sector in providing privacy in their products are the business models of tech companies and how they make profits from personal data.

Ms Monique Morrow (Chief Technology Strategist, President and Co-Founder of the Humanized Internet) highlighted the surveillance aspect embedded in the technologies that we use in our daily lives. She stressed that human agency is crucial in determining the extent of such technology: in order to have a ‘humanized Internet’, human values, and human agency in the technology.

Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau) praised the achievement of connecting half of the world’s population to the Internet but acknowledged that in order to achieve the goals set by the 2030 Agenda, a global connectivity needs to be reached. New models for collaboration, new thinkings and new paradigms are needed to achieve the goal.

Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Executive Director, Secretariat, High Level Panel for Digital Cooperation) talked about the risk of the fragmentation of the Internet, arguing that the perception of the Internet is different according to cultural contexts. Despite the fact that the Internet is one from a technological perspective, it is used in many different ways around the world. He gave the example of the recently approved African Convention on Privacy and Security. The African view on privacy shows that privacy in a crisis situation, such as tribal conflict, is a matter of life and death. This shows that the notion of privacy can be differently perceived in Africa, Europe, and so on. Thus, the challenge to keep the Internet unified has to be tackled by recognising the different perceptions and to foster co-operation among different socio-cultural spaces. Moreover, he explained that the cross-border interdependence on Internet assets and infrastructure will represent a means to keep the Internet integrated. Finally, he recalled the notion of choice and optimisation. Machines today are able to give us better and more optimal choices, based on the data provided. Therefore, questions on the conflict between the freedom of choice and the optimisation of choice come up. The choice, represented by individuals in their freedom, and optimisation, represented by new technologies, will feature the fundamental discussions about society. Finally, focusing on data governance, he stressed the need for current international institutions to discuss such topics outside silos.

The conference ended with closing remarks by Ms Charlotte Warakaulle (Director for International Relations, CERN).