Well here we are! The Internet is 30 years old and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind it, thinks the Internet is broken. In an interview in 2018 with Vanity Fair he recalled the early days. “the spirit was very decentralised. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to ask permission. That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we have lost.
From the very start the Internet was meant to be open, free and decentralised, but today it is controlled by a few companies with grave consequences for society and the economy. The Internet of today has become the opposite of what it was intended to be.
We must go way back to a paper published in 1964 titled “On distributed Communications” by Paul Baran who worked for the RAND corporation. His paper was a very influential piece in establishing the concepts that became the architectural foundations of the Internet we know today.
The principles of freedom and openness were at the core of the design and Vint Cerf and Robert Khan put these concepts into practice at the US Department of Defence in the late 1960s. Years later Vint Cerf was quoted as saying, “The beauty of the Internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group”.
The Internet would have remained an obscure channel for the US government to communicate had it not been for Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s he created a way for information to be shared easily using hypertext via the World Wide Web.
He could have become fabulously wealthy, but instead he released the source code for free, further embodying the democratic spirit of the Internet. This allowed everyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.
Unfortunately, a few individuals who have become exceptionally rich have chosen to change the open and free Internet that was gifted to the world. Berners-Lee has now decided it is time to fight back through the launch of Inrupt, a start-up that was only established last year. His mission is to decentralise the Internet to reclaim power back from the giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon allowing individuals to regain control of their own data.
The Internet died in 2014. Before then, traffic to websites came from many sources, and the web was a lively ecosystem. Today over 70 per cent of traffic is dominated by just two platforms, Facebook and Google. Facebook has cleverly caged articles and videos in their walled garden and many apps and sites will not let a user join without a Facebook account.
When it comes to Google even though competitors like Yelp might have superior reviews and comparison websites like Foundem might offer better results, Google can effectively blacklist them. Traffic to these websites has collapsed as Google today starves content creators of traffic.
Google’s Android mobile operating system powers most of the smartphones today with an 85 per cent market share. As a result, it has effectively become the gatekeeper to what websites, apps and companies consumers can access.
Users are becoming increasingly demanding that Facebook and Google fix themselves. Let’s hope Sir Tim Berners-Lee successfully brings the internet back to where it was intended to be in the first place.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org