The internet celebrates 25 years but challenges lie ahead

| 17 March 2014

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This month we celebrate the birth of the internet. It was 25 years ago that an idea was turned into reality.

On the 12th of March in 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee submitted a proposal entitled “Information Management” at the CERN physics laboratory in Switzerland.

The mechanics of his proposal was a system to organise and manage information, and publish it in a way that everyone can have access to it and share it. This essentially was the code and software for the foundation for the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Recalling the day, Sir Tim Berners Lee describes how his boss at the time, saw this idea as “vague but exciting”.

The idea was to create something that was free, decentralised and a platform that nobody owned. “It is something that belongs to all of us”, recalled Sir Tim Berners Lee.

A quarter of a century later, the internet has transformed and changed how we fundamentally communicate. It has broken down barriers, and enabled information to spread at a pace never thought of. It has revolutionised education, media, and healthcare – to name just a few sectors.

Politically it has opened people’s eyes to the truth and governments have been toppled as nations empower themselves with knowledge.

It has unleashed economic transformations in many economies, and has created billionaires whose businesses were not even an idea a decade ago.

Companies have sprung out of nowhere and traditional business models were interrupted by the connectivity of the World Wide Web.

Think of the industries that the internet has transformed and in some cases made extinct:

  • Travel for example is now an online business. Most people now book their own trips online and have the ability to research a destination and even get other travellers’ opinions on their planned journey.
  • The internet has broken down educational barriers in schools and universities. Sharing information between institutions has resulted in massive strides in academia, simply by the speed of communication.
  • Businesses have become more connected and agile. The internet has enabled mobility on another scale, and has made individuals more productive.

But as Sir Tim Berners Lee himself says there are still many challenges ahead and he raises some concerns that need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of his dream for the Internet:

  • How do we connect the nearly two-thirds of the planet who can’t yet access the Web?
  • Who has the right to collect and use our personal data, for what purpose, and under what rules?
  • How do we create a high-performance open architecture that will run on any device, rather than fall back into proprietary alternatives?

The immediate challenge will be to connect the unconnected. With a world population of just over seven billion people, only 2,5 billion have access to the internet. Penetration in developed nations is close to 80 percent. Africa, with a population of over 1 billion people, only has around an 18 percent penetration of users connected to the internet.

There is no doubt that there are many challenges that lie ahead in the next 25 years, one wonders what the internet will look like in future? Nobody knows. On the immediate horizon, with current pace at which technology is moving, we can be sure of a society that is becoming more dependent on the internet. It will be a network that will mature in such a way that it will take a human form and be able to make decisions based on the huge data that has been created. That already poses all sorts of questions and problems.

Greeting from Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee on the Web’s 25th anniversary from Web25 on Vimeo.

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