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Culture

Opinion: The World Wide Web Turns 20

The World Wide Web turned 20 on Friday, March 13. What began as a system for exchanging research information is now a part of daily life for millions. Peter Philipp explores the Web's impact on society.

DW's Peter Philipp examines the World Wide Web's place in society on its 20th birthday

Rarely has a technological development initially been viewed so skeptically and then gone on to enjoy use by so many people who adopt it for their own specific needs.

And this despite the fact that most users don't actually know what exactly happens when they send an E-mail, look for information on the World Wide Web or do online banking, to name just a few widespread uses of the World Wide Web.

Although the number of World Wide Web users continues to increase, people nonetheless maintained their mistrust of it, perhaps for the very reason that they don't know how it works. Indeed, their mistrust isn't simply rooted in their fear of computer viruses or spying by their neighbor or the Secretary of State.

Blind trust

At the same time, users navigate the World Wide Web in a carefree and unsuspecting manner. They upload or transmit personal information without encrypting it as well as photos which they long since regret. But the easier it is to entrust something onto the World Wide Web, the harder it is to tear it away again.

Users turn themselves into transparent objects and thus some protests against the violation of data security seem rather irrational. Those infringed upon have brought this on through their own carelessness or by inviting others in much more than through infringements on the part of authorities or disagreeable contemporaries.

The sinister picture painted of the World Wide Web -- because it is inscrutable and restricted -- is in fact reminiscent of the signs on a highway bridge: "You aren't in a traffic jam -- you are the traffic jam."

Seeing ourselves in the World Wide Web

DW expert Peter Philipp

The Web is much more a blessing than a curse, says Philipp

You see, we are the World Wide Web, because after all, what would we be without it?

American presidents win elections with the help of the World Wide Web and we can use it to order movie theatre tickets and food. Charity events and murders are announced on the Web. People look for lovers on the Web and others cheat on their lovers with its help. Or games are played. And the Web -- despite its quality of mystery -- retains a portion of harmlessness because everything only seems to happen in the virtual realm.

The financial crisis wasn't caused by the Web. But what would it be without the ability to unscrupulously transferring of millions and billions here and there, money which hardly seems tangible to those involved. The monstrosity of the losses in the past months have lost a lot of meaning for many because some people can't imagine such a sum, which for others is a number on a monitor. One click it's there and another click it's gone. And with it perhaps billions.

It would be absurd to blame the Web for this. The technical possibilities of the World Wide Web don't create ruthless finance jugglers, pedophiles or people who go on shooting sprees. There have always been people like this. The Web might make it easier for them, but nothing more.

A democracy booster

For the large majority, the Web is a blessing, and not just for small things in every day life. It can also affect change in the social system. Citizens today can be less restrained in accessing the Web by restrictive governments than ever before. Of course sometimes it can happen, but there is always a loophole again.

Only through the Web can these people make direct and unfiltered contact with the world abroad and inform themselves and others. It helps democratization at a grassroots level and despite recurring attempts to seal off entire countries off from the World Wide Web. This is a futile attempt when these countries themselves want to use the Web to circulate their propaganda.

The Web has evolved over the years into a valuable commodity and it deserves protection; from state as well as criminal intervention and misuse. And while both can't always be clearly distinguished, the focus must be on the user's understanding and reason when it comes to the Web. Barring exceptions, these are often better than they are made out to be.

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correspondent

Author: Peter Philipp (ls)
Editor: Trinity Hartman

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