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Thanks for the Internet (and Let's Make Sure We Keep It)
November 22, 2010 - 9:30pm

Can you remember what life was like before the Internet? I can ... but barely. I remember sending my first e-mail, and putting the entire message in the subject line, not knowing how it worked; the person to whom I was responding kindly phoned me up to explain it to me. I remember using Gopher, burrowing down through files and folders to see what was there. I recall a friend telling me about a new development that he thought would change everything, and it did; he was describing the World Wide Web and the browser that opened the door to just about everything.

Twenty years later, it's hard to imagine going through a day in the library without the Internet. Remember how involved it was to search through years' worth of abstracts, flipping from the index to the numbered entries? Remember how tiny the print was in the ISI citation indexes? For younger librarians, these are uphill-through-the-snow stories, but trust me: it was tough.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, just published an article that reminds me to be thankful for the Web, and for the underlying principles of the Internet that it's all too easy to take for granted. "It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend," he writes. "The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium."

He reminds us, too, that these underlying principles are not laws of the universe, they are a human construct, and there are humans trying to change them.

Berners-Lee lists and describes these principles, making a case for their essential importance:

  • Universality: all kinds of information for all audiences (including the disabled) should be available to everyone. Information stored in silos because one company--such as Facebook--wants to keep their customers' attention glued to their proprietary space, runs contrary to this principle. Though he doesn't mention subscription database that libraries provide their immediate communities, they too are toll-gated, walled-off parts of the Internet, accessible only to those with recognized status, not shareable with others. It's a good way to guarantee the obscurity of scholarship and its irrelevance beyond the boundaries of our campuses.
  • Open standards: though you may not think about standards, it's significant for all of us that you don't have to pay to use HTML and TCP/IP protocols. No royalties are charged, no permissions required. That's not the case with apps, which can be closed to all but one company. Though they depend on the Internet, they are apart from it, and others won't be able to improve or build 90on them.
  • Separation of layers: this one was new to me, but it makes sense. Partitioning the Web from the Internet makes it possible to improve either without radically altering the other. Internet connections have gotten faster, but that hasn't required the standards underlying the Web to be updated or changed.When HTML is improved, it doesn't require a new Internet.
  • Electronic human rights: this is huge. This includes the principle of Net Neutrality, the ability for information to flow regardless of where it originates. This will keep one Internet provider from favoring its products over those from other companies--or leaving the underfunded organizations or individuals without a voice). Berners-Lee writes, "a neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science."
  • Privacy (or, as Berners-Lee puts it, "no snooping)": not only should we be free to read widely without government surveillance, we should be able to proceed through the Internet without companies tracking our searches. A mind-blowing Wall Street Journal investigation shows how our use of the Internet has become a hot commodity--and just how intrusive corporate surveillance has become. Berners-Lee also believes nobody should be cut off from the Internet based on some company's suspicion that their intellectual property is at risk.

He closes by sketching out some pending initiatives that will make the Internet and the Web even more instrumental, but not if we abandon the underlying principles that are fundamental to what it is and can be. He ends on a philosophical note. "The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine."

Now that I'm having trouble imagining life without the Internet, these principles are especially precious. Like Ben Franklin's republic, we have the Internet--but only if we can keep it.


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