An idea that began thirty-five years ago as a way for scientists to share information led to the most radical changes the modern world has seen. The computer scientist behind it, Tim Berners-Lee, was born in London in 1955. In 1989, he was working at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. Tired of consulting colleagues through constant questions, on 12 March he sent a proposal to his boss for a system to share information. Called Mesh, the system would use the new technology of hypertext, which connected documents, and store those documents on multiple servers, controlled by interconnected people. “Vague but exciting,” his boss replied.    

a gift for the world

Nothing happened for a year. Then Berners-Lee started to write code to implement his idea, now called the ‘World Wide Web’. He used hyperlinks (a link in a document to another location) to connect different pieces of information, using the early internet. He built the first web browser and server. He also published the first-ever website, describing his project, on 20 December 1990. Aware of the incredible potential of his groundbreaking idea, he refused to patent his invention, gifting it to the world. 

A Global Revolution

In the last thirty years, Berners-Lee’s invention has revolutionised the world, changing the way we communicate and consume information. The web has dramatically accelerated countries’ economic development. The world has used the platform to build the fundamental elements of our modern societies: online shopping, social media, big tech companies such as Amazon, Google, Twitter (now X) and Facebook (now Meta), and trillions of web pages. The web has now enabled the creation of generative AI, which will radically change our world … again!

International recognition

Berners-Lee’s invention has brought him global praise and awards. He was named in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. The scientist, said Time, “created a mass medium for the 21st century. He loosed it on the world […] and he has fought to keep it open, non-proprietary and free.” In a list of eighty cultural moments that shaped the world, chosen by a panel of twenty-five eminent scientists, academics, writers and world leaders, the invention of the World Wide Web was ranked number one! 

Criticising the Web

Berners-Lee, however, is highly critical of the way in which the web has developed.  His broad technology sector coalition Alliance for AffordableInternet is promoting a campaign for universal internet access, especially in the developing world. He is also worried by the web’s privacy violations, the growth of misinformation and government abuses, and online gender-based violence. He would like to “re-found” his own invention, with new rules and new business practices — with the ability of users to control their own personal data being a priority. The web is a universal tool for public good, he feels, and control should ultimately be in public hands.