Protect the open web and the promise of the digital age

Richard Waters in the Financial Times:  “There is much to be lost if companies and nations put up fences around our digital open plains
For all the drawbacks, it is not hard to feel nostalgic about the early days of the web. Surfing between slow-loading, badly designed sites on a dial-up internet connection running at 56 kilobits per second could be frustrating. No wonder it was known as the “world wide wait”. But the “wow” factor was high. There was unparalleled access to free news and information, even if some of it was deeply untrustworthy. Then came that first, revelatory search on Google, which untangled the online jumble with almost miraculous speed.
Later, an uproarious outbreak of blogs converted what had been a passive medium into a global rant. And, with YouTube and Facebook, a mass audience found digital self-expression for the first time.
As the world wide web turns 25, it is easy to take all this for granted. For a generation that has grown up digital, it is part of the fabric of life.
It is also easy to turn away without too many qualms. More than 80 per cent of time spent on smartphones and tablets does not involve the web at all: it is whiled away in apps, which offer the instant gratification that comes from a tap or swipe of a finger.
Typing a URL on a small device, trying to stretch or shrink a web page to fit the small screen, browsing through Google links in a mobile browser: it is all starting to seem so, well, anachronistic.
But if the world wide web is coming to play a smaller part in everyday life, the significance of its relative decline should be kept in perspective. After all, the web is only one of the applications that rides on top of the internet: it is the standards and technologies of the internet itself that provide the main foundation for the modern, connected world. As long as all bits flow freely (and cheaply), the promise of the digital age will remain intact.
Before declaring the web era over and moving on, however, it is worth dwelling on what it represents – and what could be lost if this early manifestation of digital life were to be consigned to history.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote the technical paper a quarter of a century ago that laid out the architecture of the web, certainly senses the threat. The open technical standards and open access that lie at the heart of the web – based on the freedom to link any online document to any other – are not guaranteed. What is needed, he argued this week, is nothing less than a digital bill of rights: a statement that would enshrine the ideals on which the medium was founded.
As this suggests, the web has always been much more than a technology. It is a state of mind, a dream of participation, a call to digital freedom that transcends geography. What place it finds in the connected world of tomorrow will help define what it means to be a digital citizen…”