Anne Jellema, chief executive of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation, speaks to Marketing about the trends that are worrying the organisation, such as the erosion of privacy online and communication now flowing through a small handful of giant internet companies.
Today is the 25th anniversary of what was a seemingly ordinary Sunday at CERN in March 1989, when one of its fellows, Tim Berners-Lee, submitted his proposal for an information managment system to his employers.
That document, which was deemed "vague, but exciting" by his boss, explained how hypertext could be linked to internetworking computers. This became the blueprint for the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee went on to set up the Web Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the improvement and availability of the World Wide Web.
His ambition for the Web Foundation is to "seek to establish the open web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely".
Marketing caught up with Web Foundation chief executive Anne Jellema to ask whether there was ever any inkling as to the power of the web's potential - from the democratising of information and education to the need for sustainable economic growth and the worrying trend for online privacy erosion.
Was it beyond the realms of Tim's imagination, and those around him, that the web would revolutionise communications on such a scale?
I don’t think Tim, or anyone working with him at the time, foresaw the full impact the web would have. Indeed, I still don’t think we understand that today. What is clear is that the web was always built to scale and to serve as the foundation for "permissionless" innovation.
The web’s core principles are that it is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. What does that mean in practice? Anyone can build a site, without having to ask for permission. And that site can do anything the builder can code, and can link or be linked to anything.
National boundaries don’t matter. The device being used is irrelevant and the core technology is - and always will be - free. That’s a powerful cocktail for innovation which Tim took care to weave into the fabric of the web from the start.
Should the rapid transformation that the web has enabled always be seen as positive in terms of growth? And should it be allowed to exponentially grow, so long as it's in the interest of business growth and wider development?
We must ensure that the web continues to provide an open environment for creativity and innovation, encouraging rather than stifling peer-to-peer business models
We believe that the web has much greater potential to contribute to sustainable economic growth than is currently being tapped. So far, new technology has amplified the pre-existing trend for highly skilled and highly paid "knowledge workers" to do extremely well, but other segments of the labour market have benefited far less.
So there is a need to focus more on digital inclusion, starting with proper education for all young people in skills such as coding and data analysis.
The second thing that is key to broadening the economic benefits of the web is to ensure that it continues to provide an open environment for creativity and innovation, encouraging rather than stifling peer-to-peer business models (the so-called "sharing economy"), avoiding excessively rigid copyright regimes, and keeping entry barriers as low as possible for small entrepreneurs, for example by protecting net neutrality.
Government data remains a huge untapped resource that is locked up in filing cabinets or behind paywalls in most countries.
If made freely available in machine-readable formats online, it could spur the creation of thousands of small businesses and dramatically improve key economic infrastructure such as transport and public procurement.
Finally, we have to remember that the digital economy is actually still quite small - with about 60% of the world’s people still not connected at all. Only by radically reducing the cost of fast, reliable broadband so that everybody can get online will we start to realise the real potential of the Web to generate jobs and growth.
Do you believe the internet now forms the base for an endless, immeasurable number of innovations in business and consumer lifestyle?
Human beings, not technology, are the source of innovation. "Open source" systems like the web power innovation insofar as they empower humans.
The erosion of our privacy online, whether through commercial data collection or mass surveillance by governments, could have a chilling effect on human creativity
The web’s open design has hugely accelerated scientific, social and business innovation by enabling us to collaborate, create and discover more, faster and at lower cost. But there are some worrying trends that could reduce the value of the web as a catalyst for human creativity.
The erosion of our privacy online, whether through commercial data collection or mass surveillance by governments, could have a chilling effect. Tightening of copyright rules, for example in the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty negotiations, could inhibit rather than aid innovation.
And with about 25% of our online communication now flowing through a small handful of giant internet companies, we risk seeing the rise of walled gardens, where users experience only a tiny slice of the web through a "filter bubble" and innovation is stifled.
The web now plays such a pivotal role in the reputation of consumer brands - much of this is due to the rise social media. Is this aspect - giving power to the individual voice - core to what the Web Foundation is seeking to protect and develop?
Throughout human history, knowledge, information and voice have always been elite commodities, and progress towards democratising them has been painfully slow.
In the mid-20th century there were still a substantial number of countries where women did not have the vote, and free public schooling was not introduced in parts of Africa until the 1990s.
Thanks to the web, for the first time ever we are close to achieving a world in which everyone has equal access to knowledge and equal ability to have a say in their community and their society, without regard to barriers of geography, social status, culture or class. This would be a fundamental democratic transformation on a global scale.
Of course, freedom of information, expression and opinion are always subject to limits.For example, long before social media came along, it was illegal in most countries to print malicious untruths about someone, to subject someone to sexual harassment, or to shout fire in a crowded theatre.
Our responsibilities in the era of social media are not fundamentally different, but they do demand more serious attention and education, because social media give us greatly increased power to influence and affect our fellow citizens both for good and for ill.
What is your ambition for where the web will go in the immediate future? And what about the next 25 years?
The web has transformed the face of media forever, creating a world-wide network of citizen journalists, bloggers and activists
In the near future, we hope to see the development of a national Bill of Rights for the internet. We’re working with many local and international partners to drive towards this via our Web We Want campaign. Why is this important? With a positive, certain framework, the web and its users can move forward with trust and certainty.
With that in place, who can predict what changes the web’s users will collaborate to deliver in the next 25 years? The web has already delivered trillions of dollars in economic impact and has underpinned drastic progress in healthcare (e-diagnosis, collaborative research) and education and knowledge (MOOCs, scientific research, Wikipedia).
It is bringing a reinvention of politics in many countries by enabling constant two-way dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. And it has transformed the face of media forever, creating a world-wide network of citizen journalists, bloggers and activists.
We can’t wait to see what the next quarter century holds.
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