In Praise of the World Wide Web, Openness and Sharing

As you may have gathered, the World Wide Web celebrated its 20th birthday recently, since it was publicly announced for the first time on 6 August 1991. I came to it relatively late, at the beginning of 1994, but it has nonetheless been a...

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As you may have gathered, the World Wide Web celebrated its 20th birthday recently, since it was publicly announced for the first time on 6 August 1991. I came to it relatively late, at the beginning of 1994, but it has nonetheless been a privilege to watch it grow from relatively humble beginnings as a tool for researchers, to its present central role in modern society.

One of the key parts of that announcement is the following:

If you're interested in using the code, mail me. It's very prototype, but available by anonymous FTP from info.cern.ch. It's copyright CERN but free distribution and use is not normally a problem.

In fact, as Berners-Lee recounts in his book, "Weaving the Web", he originally hoped to release the code under the GNU GPL. Although he was quite at ease with this, he recognised that very few people in the wider world of computing would be, and that this might be a problem. In the end, then, he chose to put it into the public domain, opening it up completely, to avoid issues the rather more exotic GPL might have caused with more traditional computing types.

Whether "free distribution", GPL or public domain, the aim was the same: to get the code used as widely as possible. And that same philosophy of sharing underpins the entire concept of the Web. After all, it grew out of a need for a technology that would allow scientists – originally at CERN, later worldwide – to access and pass around information as easily as possible.

But the sharing went deeper than that, as Mark Goodge writes in this blog post about the absence of any patent or copyright claims by Berners-Lee and his employer, CERN, in the original Web code:

We take the web for granted these days. But it could easily have been very different. If CERN had taken the approach later attempted by BT then every ISP and every website operator would need to pay CERN for the right to use it. Those costs would certainly have slowed development, and quite possibly strangled it. If CERN had retained the right to decide who was authorised to use their code and their technology, and pursued unauthorised users in the same way that some rights holders now pursue those who use their content in a way they disapprove of, then the web would be a fraction of the size it is now.

The web isn't just a technological success story, it's also a social and legal one. And it illustrates one principle which should be paramount in the minds of any legislator trying to grapple with how to make our Intellectual Property laws fit for the 21st century: There are times when the public benefit of not enforcing copyright massively outweighs any possible justification for retaining control. And if major rights holders will not reach that conclusion themselves, then the law must make it for them.

That's one way in which Tim Berners-Lee was a real trailblazer. But there's another, albeit related, that came to mind when I read a recent article in The Economist, which pointed out:

The digital economy is thriving in Britain, which spends more online per head of population than any other country, says the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Yet it has few world-renowned firms serving the internet consumer.

It then goes on to say:

That only a handful of world-class digital firms are British is more than just a matter of wounded national pride. Platform companies that can capture a digital market have benefits for the wider economy. Firms that go quickly from novice to giant create jobs and investment, of course; but they also spur growth in auxiliary trades and among local suppliers. Successful tech firms spawn start-ups, either by example or because staff leave to form other enterprises. This sort of cutting-edge innovation is closely linked to economic growth.

Here are some of the "platform companies" cited in the article:

Microsoft's success rests on the ubiquity of its operating system; Intel is a giant because its personal-computer chips are the industry standard; Google is first choice for web trawlers in part because its results are derived from a greater number of searches than its rivals'; Facebook has become the global hub for social networking.

What's striking is that absent from that list is the biggest platform of all: the Web. More than any other, it was the Web platform that made Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest possible in the first place.

So why did The Economist, leave it out? Obviously because Tim Berners-Lee decided, in his other bold move, not to turn the Web into a product from a company, or to try to make as much money as possible from the idea. Given the power of Web, it's likely he could have done that, but I doubt whether it would have been anywhere near so revolutionary and transformative as it is today.

The reason for that is simple. By sharing his idea freely, Berners-Lee ensured that it would be used far more widely and in more innovative ways than would ever had been possible had it been turned into a traditional platform like Windows, Google or Facebook. In doing so, he surely has led to the creation of "jobs and investment" and spurred "growth in auxiliary trades and among local suppliers" far beyond what any of those have achieved.

This fact exposes the skewed perspective of The Economist when considering the importance of the digital economy in Britain. Far from being a pale shadow of its American equivalent, the UK's digital economy is actually the basis for everything that happens there thanks to Berners-Lee's gift to the world.

Sadly, though, The Economist is unable to see this, because its only metric is corporate profit. Viewed with this limited optic, it misses the far greater contribution that Berners-Lee has made, because it is a contribution that has been spread around the world, permeating and powering digital economies everywhere.

The same is true of open source. Again, most of the benefit from these projects doesn't turn up on any balance sheet (although some does, thanks to companies like Red Hat.) And for exactly this reason traditional publications like The Economist still downplay the massive impact that free software has had on the world and its economy.

It would be a perfect 20th birthday present to the Web and its creator if more people were able to look beyond these blinkered viewpoints and appreciate just how much openness and sharing has achieved in these two decades, and to look forward to a future when the its value is more fully accepted and appreciated.

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