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The web's creator on how to keep it free

Tim Berners-Lee built a free internet. In this edited version of a recent keynote speech, he explains how CERN helped incubate the idea, and why we need it to be free for all

The father of the world-defining acronym WWW delivered a keynote speech on the stage of the vast auditorium of Hall Two at King's Place, London last Saturday. The defining part of Rolex’s conference on innovation and inspiration, he gave a barn-storming speech on the role CERN to incubate the world-wide-web, and the importance of intellectual freedom to this most crucial of platforms. What follows is an edited version of that address:

You have to understand what it was like before the web: Before Clicking. 1989, I’m working at CERN – a great place. It’s full of wonderful people, and full of computers, many computers, computers of many different shapes and sizes, brought from all over the place to do serious scientific research. Some of them were PCs, some were macs, many were other different kinds, some were huge mainframe computers. Then, they all had different operating systems, and they had different documenting systems. It was just really frustrating, looking at all these different systems and having to log onto different systems and learn different system just to get a hold of a bit more of information. I thought, basically, when you look at a screen, it should give you a screen of information, whatever you’re logged into. So I proposed that we should have a system based on the internet, and sent it out on a memo with the date. 

At just about that point, my boss Mike realized, well, he was diagnosed with a type of cancer. Peggy, his wife, went through his things, and they found that memo among his possessions, and in the corner, written at the top of the cover, above the dates, was in his writing “vague, but exciting”. Now, some people give you 20 percent time to do something random. What I got was 100 percent time to just test this thing out, so I opened my computer up and used it to design an application. I saved it as as an application, with the name worldwideweb.app 

So that was a really important stage for the web: I’d gotten the idea, showed that it worked and then I had to make it grow, and that was really difficult. In fact, this was down to a lot of things: it was people coming out of the woodwork, sending me an email saying they’d put up a website. Someone in Germany, in Australia, in Hawaii saying they’d put up a website with random interesting things on it, Steve Jobs putting up the first map website, a kind of pre-Google Maps. People helping produce content, and taking the idea of the browser, looking at it, looking at the content and then producing another one. In 1993, after 18 months of the project, CERN announced that they will not be charging royalties. This exponential growth was amazing and keeping sure that CERN could keep their royalty commitment was crucial to it. 

The internet was a great émigré. I remember 20 years earlier – the internet was being designed in ’69 – and in ’89, it was created so that you could do anything with it, I could write any program, I could just pick a program, plug a computer into the wall, have another program running on another computer, plug that computer into the wall, the internet would just work. That opens a new discussion: the internet as something we may have to fight for. 

The web has been a useful platform, and a lot of new stuff is on top of the web. Why? Because you don’t have to come to me to ask permission to make a new website or to have a new idea about having a web: it is just there. That, of course, is awfully powerful, as the web is a platform, which is where any of us can have power. Because it is not just a document: it’s programmable, because every webpage has the power of the computer. If you look at a computer and you think you can do something with it, you can look at a webpage and you can do the same thing with a webpage. 

And that’s the excitement that my parents had early on, about the first computers. You can code any webpage, using javascript codes, using the IPRs to do whatever you want. You can make the web pages talk to each other, without even going back to the beginning, you can build whole new protocols, whole new social machines, like you build a new technology with which people can communicate in new ways – like many of you have already done. And of course something that we need to protect and jump up and down in the streets if our governments try to take it away from us.