Happy 25th Birthday to the Embattled World Wide Web

How do you sing happy birthday to a computer? Or, more specifically, how do you sing happy birthday to a system of hyperlinked files accessible, by the internet, that live inside your computer (and phone, and tablet, and so on)? It is, after all, the World Wide Web's 25th birthday.

On March 12, 1989, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for an information management system built on top of the internet. It stipulated that the internet could be made more useful with some sort of graphical representation of the information being shared around the network. At that point in time, the internet had been around for a couple of decades but was used mainly by scientists and had no real interface. Berners-Lee's proposal was specific to CERN, but the web itself would soon grow much larger than a single lab.

Happy 25th Birthday to the Embattled World Wide Web

Berners-Lee's original proposal (via CERN)

Now's a good time to make one thing very clear: the World Wide Web and the internet are not the same thing. The web simply makes it easier to navigate the vast system of connected computers that is the internet. To borrow an analogy from Motherboard, if you imagine the internet is the ocean, then the web would be the many ships, boats, and submarines that carry people across it. Visiting any website or webpage, as the names imply, means you're using the web. However, when you use an app or make a Skype call or get email through a client, you're just using the internet.

After 25 years of service, the web is still kicking, though it may be in a spot of trouble. Or rather, it has been for a while, according to Wired magazine. Nearly four years ago, the magazine's then-editor Chris Anderson penned a cover story with the sensational but somewhat sensible headline: The Web Is Dead. Anderson explained how, despite a spike around the time of the dot com bust, the web had been growing increasingly unpopular as peer-to-peer protocols and apps started to take over. In fact, at the time of that story, the web accounted for less than a third of all internet traffic.

It might be most accurate to say that the World Wide Web is being left behind, overlooked by companies who would rather pump their data (and advertisements) directly into the users' eyeballs on their own terms. As Anderson wrote:

It's driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing… And it's the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they're rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives… The fact that it's easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend. Producers and consumers agree: The Web is not the culmination of the digital revolution.

Some of what Anderson says is a little dated, but he makes a powerful point. Think about it: How many of your internet-related activities lately involved going to a webpage? How many involved using an app or a client? I'd say I'm 60-40 web-to-internet use.

Companies like it when you skip the web and use their app because they can offer an optimized experience (and revenue model). Optimized experiences are great, but they come at a price. Enabling companies to stray from the free and open format of the web stands to throw off the power dynamic of the whole network. It also opens the door for government regulation that may or may not include giving certain companies special treatment for a price. In other words, it puts net neutrality in danger.

No less than Tim Berners-Lee agrees. Just yesterday, he called for "a global constitution—a bill of rights" for the internet, in part, to prevent something like this from happening. He told The Guardian:

Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what's happening at the back door, we can't have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It's not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.

To be sure, an internet that is dominated by private, for-profit companies who can force any and all users to agree to specific terms of service before they can access information is not what Berners-Lee is talking about. Google, for instance, depends on the web for a lot. It's actually hard to imagine Google existing without the web. But does Google also like the idea of people living in the Chrome or mobile app ecosystem, using nothing but Google-approved services that show you only Google-approved ads?

Don't worry about the corporations, though, World Wide Web. Sir Tim and the denizens of the web users know what a beautiful thing you are. And they're going to fight to make sure you stay that way.

Check out all kinds of birthday greetings for the WWW at Webat25.org.