updated 01:15 pm EDT, Sat August 6, 2011
Web hits 20 with new power but freedom fears
Saturday was a special occasion for the Internet as it represented the 20th anniversary for the World Wide Web. CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee put forward plans on August 6, 1991 for Mesh, a system that would link documents to each other over the Internet. The proposal included now-commonplace concepts like hypertext, or the typical web link, as well as the possibility of linking directly to media online.
Web users may indirectly owe the technology's existence to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his stint running NeXT Computer. Both the first graphical web browsers and the first web server ran on NeXT computers. The earliest users were told that, if the original NeXTcube server was shut down, the entire web would stop running. It wasn't until 1993 and NCSA Mosaic that most Mac and Windows users got to see the web in a similar way.
The web has since exploded and is now increasingly considered the primary way for many to communicate and shop. Cloud services are now becoming important and let web users get access to whole music, video, and file collections from any connected computer, phone, or tablet, sometimes without needing anything more that a regular web browser. Current estimates put at least 17.91 billion pages indexed by search engines on the Internet, and possibly near 50 billion if global Intranets and other non-indexed pages can count.
It has grown important enough that it may have contributed directly to major political change. While revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East got the brunt of their efforts in the real world, the web helped protestors coordinate through Facebook and Twitter, services that weren't even possible on the pre-web Internet. At one point, it became a vital output for those in Egypt as Google put voicemail from Egyptians on Twitter at a time when the Mubarak regime had tried to silence opposition by taking down all Internet access.
Even in the relatively stable US, the Internet has served as a way of questioning the official line on news stories as well as providing deeper explorations of issues than would be possible on the radio or TV.
Concerns are nonetheless mounting that the Internet's democratization effect is being curbed by both corporate and government interests. Censorship in countries like China is increasingly becoming a sticking point as citizens get more contact with the outside world while the government races to try and suppress speech. France's three-strikes law has been caught forcing likely innocent people offline.
In the US, a ruling just handed down this week would also allow domain seizures for copyright violations even if only some of the content is illegal. Free speech advocates have been concerned that both media labels and politicians might use domain seizures to hush opposition. [via Slate]