On March 12th 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was a scientist working for CERN. He wrote a proposal for a more effective communication system that he called the “World Wide Web” and thus, the internet was born. Twenty five years on, just how significant was this breakthrough?
As somebody who has been lucky enough to have had access to the internet for as long as I can remember, it is difficult to imagine life without it. Wikipedia has become the go-to resource for just about everything that requires an answer. It is an online encyclopaedia that enables the user access to the extent of human knowledge at the push of a button. The ease with which we can now communicate online via email or social networking websites has become so engrained in our culture that we take for granted just how significant the internet is in our lives. So much so that it is hard to comprehend modern life without the internet, it is a pivotal part of our culture.
Berners-Lee changed the world on that day in 1989. Just think of the political reform that the internet must have instigated. One only has to read Orwell to realise how significant information can be to political oppression. Indeed, withholding or manipulating information is arguably the greatest tool of a tyrant. However, the internet has made this so much harder to do. Just look at modern day China; China has become an immensely powerful nation in the global economy. However, on the domestic front the government is scared of the influence of the internet. The Chinese have tried to censor “Google” in an attempt to quash the spread of western democratic ideology and information on the Tiananmen Square protests. The so called “Arab Spring” was a wave of revolutionary activity in the Arab world instigated, at least in part, by ideas circulating on the internet. In sum, the relentless spread of information and ease of communication brought about by the internet is the tyrant’s worst nightmare.
However, there are some worrying inconsistencies here. Berners-Lee himself recently expressed his concern and called for a Bill of Rights to protect internet users. The extent of the NSA’s surveillance programme revealed by Edward Snowden last year is staggering. Indeed, the thought of American officials “mining internet communications” of thousands of citizens is frightening and sounds fundamentally Orwellian with the NSA fulfilling the role of “Big Brother”. In addition, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been ostracised by the United States and the western world. He has been labelled a traitor and compared to a terrorist because he “leaked” some fairly uncomfortable truths regarding the US military. This inconsistency is worrying and makes you wonder just how “free” the internet is. On this point I’m inclined to agree with Berners-Lee. The internet is a brilliant resource and it has changed the world but it is by no means perfect.