Not at all vague and much more than exciting

CERN computer scientist Maria Dimou on Tim Berners-Lee's vision for a free, open World Wide Web


In 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN, I was responsible for the laboratory's multiprotocol email gateway. I remember discussing with Tim naming conventions for applications, and configuration rules for the first mailing lists that he requested to allow pioneer websites to discuss World Wide Web code.

We attended technical meetings sponsored by the European Commission, myself for email standardization, and Tim for the Information Services Working Group (WG) – where he presented his code, and some Scandinavian universities even showed an interest in installing it.

Tim conceived, wrote and presented the web as an open, distributed, networked medium. He believed that the web should be accessible by everyone, everywhere – embracing from the first web conference at CERN in 1994 development for people with disabilities or a sub-optimal network infrastructure. He presented the web – in his proposal to CERN in March 1989 – as a platform for scientific collaboration, and twenty years later reinforced this commitment, announcing the Web Science Trust as a home for scientists online.

And Tim Berners-Lee continues to strive for a free, open web today. Setting up the World Wide Web Foundation was just one of the many steps he took to maintain this ideal. On 5 December 2013 at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tim announced the Web We Want campaign, which will form the centre of the debate around today's information-surveillance methods.

As a CERN scientist, I share Tim's ideas for an open, collaborative web. I believe that CERN's software development based on web standards should be linked to the relevant working groups in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web.

Up until 1998, in the Web Office at CERN, we were still able to count all the world's web servers. We still thought we could keep track of the web's expansion. Apache put an end to this, as starting one's own web server became so easy. But we were still writing search algorithms of our own, with integrated dictionaries for natural language searches, with help from technical students.

We enjoyed, at the time, a certain pluralism because we had multiple commercial or public-domain products to compare and evaluate, search engines, web calendars and editing tools; we didn't use "Google" as a synonym for "search".

The explosion of websites around the turn of the century highlighted the importance of identifying trustworthy information online. At CERN, we understand that presence on the web doesn't necessarily make information valid – it must be recent and from a trusted source. Sophisticated algorithms are developed to promote web content by devious means, such as clever use of metadata to "arrange" the importance of search results; spread false rumours; manipulate public opinion. Browsing today requires a discerning eye and a knack for research.

Today, CERN software developers write Grid middleware, data-management software, collaborative tools, repositories for data-preservation projects and web-based applications. They use, amongst other standards, the http protocol. A collaboration with relevant W3C working groups would lead to technical benefits in these times when resources are limited and the web has become much more than a document repository.

The web has changed human society more radically than Gutenberg's printing press. It is a valuable platform for education and free exchange of ideas. But it can also be a tool for propaganda and surveillance.

Now more than ever we at CERN should keep in touch with the evolution of the web: after all, it changed the world as we know it at the end of the 1980s – it could do so again.