Twenty five years ago today, a CERN engineer submitted a modest proposal to his bosses for a new communications format that would alter the the course of human history. Originally conceived as a way to wrestle responses from his colleagues faster, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's dream of a browser-based, hypertext platform for information makes him the father and architect of the World Wide Web.
And now he says it's under assault.
"Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what's happening at the back door, we can't have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture," Berners-Lee tells the Guardian in an interview. "It's not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it."
He's talking, of course, about the mass surveillance of citizens by their governments—namely the United States's National Security Agency and the United Kingdom's GCHQ. Both the NSA and its British counterpart stand accused of bulk collecting text messages, reading emails and chat logs, lying in front of Congress, and, most recently, secretly hacking into the webcams of Yahoo users to test facial recognition algorithms. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, afraid that we'll simply get used to governments overstepping their digital boundaries, Berners-Lee is calling for us to do something about it. His new initiative, the Web We Want, is spearheading a push for what's being framed as an online Magna Carta—an Internet bill of rights to nurture and protect the "free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration, and creativity." How the organization intends to do that can be distilled to three core elements in its mission: A small grants program, ostensibly to help organizations interested in advocating for user rights; a public education program to help the non-tech-savvy crowd understand how bad things really are; and a mobilizing umbrella for organizations big and small to rally under for big fights.
The Web We Want would hardly be the first organization to band together against bulk surveillance, but Berners-Lee believes a shared standard of principles and ethics distilled into a document isn't just a major step in the right direction—it's long, long overdue.
"These issues have crept up on us," said Berners-Lee. "Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years."