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The World Wide Web turns 30

Mischa Ehrhardt
April 30, 2023

Thirty years ago, the internet was made available to the public for the very first time. Little behind the technology has changed since but artificial intelligence could have a major impact.

Tim Berners-Lee and a computer from the 1990s.
Tim Berners-Lee invented the source code for the World Wide Web in the early 1990sImage: DB CERN Genf/dpa/picture alliance

1989 was a year of revolutions. While in Germany the wall was coming down, another history-making development was taking place inside the mind of a man called Tim Berners-Lee.

The British physicist at the renowned CERN research institute in Geneva, Switzerland, was bothered by the infamous communications chaos between various institutes and projects at CERN.

The 34-year-old wrote out a summary of his idea for a solution. "Vague, but exciting," was the response of his boss at the time.

Too vague, apparently — and so at first, nothing happened. But Berners-Lee kept working on his idea. And slowly, the individual components of what would become the World Wide Web took shape: URLs for web addresses had to be created, HTML to describe the pages as well as the first web browser.

The result was revealed to the global public exactly 30 years ago: On April 30, 1993, the researchers at CERN launched the World Wide Web and it was the beginning of the stellar rise of the internet.

A black PC computer from the early 1990s
This machine was used by Berners-Lee to develop and run the first WWW server, multi-media browser and web editorImage: Philip Toscano/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

The internet changed life as we know it

Today, I have to explain to my thirteen-year-old daughter that, when I was her age, we didn't have the internet or smartphones. We had to shop in actual stores while today, we can order almost anything with just a few taps and swipes.  

My encyclopedias sit on the shelves collecting dust while Wikipedia has become the place to go if you want quick information on anything you can think of, even the subject of this article, the invention of the internet. You no longer have to leaf through a dozen daily papers to find an apartment because today the internet has more portals with more listings than a newspaper could ever hold.

One downside of a digital network like this is that you can feel lost amid the overload of information. The whole idea behind the internet is that, at least in principle, anyone can advertise and publish their views, ideas, products, goods and visions. Former US President Donald Trump is a good example. The reach of his Twitter account gave him a loyal following, despite, or even because of, a lot of misinformation.

A woman's hands typing on a laptop.
The internet was envisioned as a platform for the free exchange of informationImage: Dominic Lipinski/PA/dpa/picture alliance

Search engines like Google and DuckDuckGo help separate the wheat from the chaff in the seemingly endless flood of data and information. But the actors behind large digital corporations such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft above all pursue profit interests. And they do this by controlling the structure of the internet. This was something that Berners-Lee never intended. He could have patented his World Wide Web technology but he deliberately chose not to. The pursuit of profit was going against his vision of a free exchange of information.

Artificial intelligence raises the stakes

And now, the next stage of the internet is starting to emerge — artificial intelligence (AI).

Just a few months ago, AI chatbot ChatGPT launched a flurry of discussion and debate. As the internet turns 30, AI could be the thing to shape its future.

"As an AI-based language model, I can't say with certainty whether ChatGPT is the future of the internet, because the future of the internet depends on many factors and is constantly changing," the software said of itself when asked by DW.

"However, there are some features of ChatGPT and similar AI models that have the potential to influence and change the internet," it went on.

Everything AI systems can already do

AI models also raise a number of ethical challenges around data protection, transparency and accountability. ChatGPT can generate coherent texts — without showing its sources.

Visit the world's first public web page

Thirty years ago, Berners-Lee had a different approach. His first website had the somewhat unwieldy and technical address: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html

To this day, it contains basic information about the World Wide Web.

"The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents," it reads.

Hypermedia comes from hypertext and means texts that have links, that is, connections to other texts. This creates a data network without which today's world could not function.

Tim Berners-Lee in front of a backboard
Today Berners-Lee is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has received a knighthoodImage: Ed Quinn

If you're curious, you can check out this website and take a journey through time. On the first worldwide publicly accessible website, there is still a link taking you to the people involved in the project. You will still find the former contact information for Berners-Lee who has since been given a knighthood.

At the time of the website's launch, the researcher had the extension 3755 at CERN and his email was timbl@info.cern.ch. But you're unlikely to reach Berners-Lee there. He's now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and holds a chair at Oxford University.

To this day though, he heads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body he founded to standardize techniques on the World Wide Web. With a few taps on your Smartphone, you can find out all about this on his internet.

This article was originally published in German.