(14 September 2009, Washington, DC, USA) Several months ago, I had dinner with Gary Kebbel, Knight Foundation’s director of journalism programs. What struck me during our conversation was how well Knight’s interests and my own align, regarding the power of the Web. Our shared desire to transform community and to ensure that the Web remains an instrument of innovation have brought me here tonight.
Gary and I discussed specific issues such as “how the Web can help us filter good information from bad” and “how the medium might support democracy” and “what about the blogosphere?” Tonight, rather than examine those specifics, I would like take a broader look at the Web. I would like to consider what the Web can do for society on a scale we have not yet seen. And I would like to enlist your help to get us there.
First allow me to provide a brief overview of how we got to today’s Web, and how that path suggests what our next steps should be.
Back in 1989 I was a programmer at CERN, the high energy physics research center near Geneva. At that time, one huge accelerator, the LEP, had been completed, and work was just starting up on the new Large Hadron Collider (the LHC). Coincidentally, the LHC was just turned on just a few days ago. Right now, there will be a lot of pressure as the results of many years of work are put to the test. But in 1989, there was a slight lull in the pressure between completion of the LEP and the start of work on the new LHC. It was during that lull that my boss, Mike Sendall, allowed me to work on a side project — a global hypertext system I called the World Wide Web.
It took me a couple of months to put together the technology, to design HTTP and HTML and URLs, and build the first browser and server. But the technical design was only part of the work. There was an important social side of the design. The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people. When a link is made, it is a person who makes the link. When a link is followed, it is a person who decides to follow it. Understanding and accounting for the social side of the Web was, and remains, a vital part of encouraging its growth.
For example, it took 18 months for my colleague Robert Cailliau and me to persuade the CERN directors not to charge royalties for use of the Web. Had we failed, the Web would not be here today.
Later on, in the early 1990s, a new threat arose when competing browser developers sought to divide the Web into incompatible islands. I was approached from all sides by people wanting to work together to preserve “One Web.” The whole point of a hypertext link is that it can potentially link to anything out there. One Web is far more interesting and valuable than many small ones.
The community addressed this threat by agreeing, in 1994, to work together in a standards body called the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. W3C became a successful forum for consensus, where diverse parties have developed some of the core technologies that make the Web work. These technologies — HTML, XML, Style Sheets, to name a few — have fueled billion-dollar industries and connected people like never before.
Thus, by 2000 or so, the Web had been created, it had benefited from a decision to allow anyone to use it at no cost, we had some of the core standards in place, and it was really taking off.
As time went on, however, we realized that standards-making was not all that was needed. Connecting people created new privacy, security, legal, and other social challenges. The popularity of Internet technologies made them targets for abuse (spam, phishing, and so on). In order to protect our investment in the Web and to improve upon it, we needed not just to engineer the present, but to research the future.
It became apparent that for all the interesting work being done around the Web, the analysis and engineering of the Web itself — humanity connected — was not recognised as an object of study. We did not have the right journals for research results, nor the right courses. A few of us at MIT and at Southampton University in the UK realised we had to define a new field, Web Science, and make it happen.
To do so we would need collaboration among researchers from a variety of disciplines (including computer science, economics, mathematics, and psychology) whose perspectives would shed new light on the Web as a system. In 2006, I helped to set up the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) to facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web. We are now working with a growing number of colleagues around the world to develop the academic infrastructure for this new field — including journals, conferences, and curricula — so that the future Web supports the basic social values of trustworthiness, privacy, and respect for social boundaries that are so critical for connecting people.
But once again, this has not been all that is needed. When you think about how the Web is today and dream about how it might be, you must, as always, consider both technology and people. Future technology should be smarter and more powerful, of course. But you cannot ethically turn your attention to developing it without also listening to those people who don’t use the Web at all, or who could use it if only it were different in some way. (I have read that 80% of the world do not have access to the Web. ) The Web has been largely designed by the developed world for the developed world. But it must be much more inclusive in order to be of greater value to us all.
Fortunately, we are headed in that direction. Web Science has as a goal that the Web should serve humanity. W3C’s standards are engineered so that the Web remains accessible to people with disabilities, and does not have an inherent bias towards any particular language, writing direction, or culture. As part of ensuring that the Web meets the needs of more people, W3C recently started new work in two areas: eGovernment, and the role of mobile technology in developing economies.
The role of mobile technology in the poorest regions of the world merits particular attention. Numerous stories illustrate how mobile technology can help people meet their most basic health, nutrition, and education needs. But an increasing number of stories herald innovation, enabled by falling costs, and driven by situations that would be very foreign to most of us here tonight. Mobile banking and SMS used to communicate news of weather or crop prices or weddings are just a few examples of how empowered communities have begun to use information technology to overcome the lack of institutions (such as banks) or other infrastructure (such as roads). We must listen to these stories. Grassroots innovation is what makes the Web great. One way to help foster innovation in underserved communities, for example, is to support those who are already working closely with local populations to provide basic information technology tools and training.
A few years ago I chatted with a woman involved in relief work in war-ravaged areas. I wondered aloud whether Internet access should be low on the priority list after clean water, and other critical resources. She responded by telling me the story of a young man who had taught himself English, and with a connection to the Internet, how he set up his own translation business. This business provided income for the village as well as opening up new communications opportunities. I learned that I should not prioritize for others. Instead, I should listen to their concerns and opportunities and then do what I can to help.
My colleagues and I have identified three avenues — technology innovation, Web Science, and the application of the Web for the benefit of underserved communities — that we believe lead to the next phase of the Web. However, these avenues require significant collaborative efforts, worldwide, by all those who seek to fulfill the original vision of the Web: humanity connected by technology.
To encourage those communities to come together, I am pleased to unveil tonight a new Foundation, the World Wide Web Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is:
* to advance One Web that is free and open,
* to expand the Web’s capability and robustness,
* and to extend the Web’s benefits to all people on the planet.
The Web Foundation will bring together business leaders, technology innovators, academia, government, NGOs, and experts in many fields to tackle challenges that, like the Web, are global in scale. The Web Foundation is in the unique position of being able to learn from the results of projects to accelerate the evolution of the Web.
Gary Kebbel’s enthusiasm and Alberto Ibargüen’s warm support for this vision have personally given me confidence that we are on an important track. Indeed, I am grateful that, in these early stages, the Knight Foundation has generously shown its support with a $200K planning grant. Thanks to the financial and philosophical support of the Knight Foundation, we are now looking for founding donors who share a similar vision for the future Web.
I would like to introduce Steve Bratt, here tonight, who is the CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation. Steve and a small team are coordinating the planning and have done a tremendous amount already to get us to this evening. With the support of founding donors, we will launch the Foundation in early 2009 with an announcement of the first concrete steps toward fulfilling our mission. You can track the Foundation’s progress on www.webfoundation.org.
It is, as I said, the early days, the planning phase. What will it look like if the Foundation succeeds? The Web is a platform, like a piece of paper. It does not determine what you will do with it, it challenges your imagination. If the Foundation achieves all the things I can imagine now, we will have failed.
Our success will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children. Whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases. Whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable healthcare information from commercial chaff. Whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy, inform the electorate, and promote accountable debate.
I hope that you will join this global effort to connect humanity.