CYBEREYE—Commentary

William Jackson | The Web at 20: Rewards and risks of an open platform

The World Wide Web is so ingrained in our daily lives that it’s something of a surprise to be reminded that it was born just 20 years ago.

There could be a number of birthdays for the Web. The underlying concept of hypertext dates to the 1960s, and the Web debuted as a publicly available service in August 1991. “But the date of record is usually considered March 13, 1989,” said Leslie Daigle, chief Internet technology officer at the Internet Society. That was when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for the technology to CERN, the European physics consortium.

Berners-Lee proposed a plan for linking information systems via hypertext over the Internet as a way to manage and make available the huge amounts of data expected to be generated by the Large Hadron Collider, which is just now going online. The Internet Society recently marked the anniversary of that proposal by hailing it as an example of the wonders that can be achieved on an “open, standardized Internet platform.”

There have been other game-changing technologies in the past century, including aviation, radio and television. But unlike them, the Web harnessed the imagination and efforts of thousands of individuals and organizations that made their own contributions. It is not easy to get a new TV station on the air or a new aircraft into the air. But all it takes to get a new tool online is a PC and an idea.

That is the great strength — and weakness — of the Web. In 20 years, it has established a completely new sector of the economy. Unfortunately, a large portion of that sector operates underground, where criminals steal and manipulate data and generally do their best to make online life for the rest of us burdensome.

“It’s like any other tool,” Daigle said. “It requires a certain amount of education and a lot of socialization to use it properly.”

Emphasizing security rather than openness in developing the Web would have been counterproductive, she said, although “I’m sure there is a lot that could have been done differently that wouldn’t have stifled that development.”

That unstifled development still is going on. Instant messaging made e-mail seem old hat and has since been made almost obsolete by texting. In the past few years, social-networking sites have emerged and evolved from student playgrounds to business tools. And with each innovation have come new crops of vulnerabilities, exploits and opportunities for social engineering that create new risks.

On balance, the benefits of the Web probably far outweigh the drawbacks. I, for one, would not want to go back to doing my job without the online resources of the Web, and there are thousands of people providing those resources who I am sure would hate to lose their jobs. Even the security threats have a silver lining because they employ thousands of people to defend us from malicious code and malicious people. But the balancing act is a precarious one, and without constant vigilance, the scales could easily tip in the other direction.

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