The web is turning 30 this month. But according to some experts, we’re still treating it like a teenager.
Hard as it is to believe that the internet has been around for three decades, its origins are, by some accounts, even older. It was 1969 when remote computers first communicated directly.
But it was 30 years ago, in March of 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee put forth the building blocks we have come to rely on, with basic concepts such as HTML, the language used for creating web pages, and URLs, or web addresses.
Long before Web 2.0 ushered in the rise of social media and mega-platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, were the early days of the internet, with dial-up modems and static web pages.
The very first video uploaded to YouTube, posted on Saturday April 23, 2005, by the site’s cofounder Jawed Karim under the user name “jawed.”
That first era saw exceptional growth, both in terms of the ubiquity of the new technology and the number of people who used it: there had never been an internet before, and every user was a new one. As simple as the 1.0 version of the web may seem in hindsight, it was a gold rush.
With all that growth came speculation. Trailblazers and opportunity-seekers were developing uncharted territory for the first time, and not unlike real estate land grabs in the physical world, those who were able to get in first and secure online spaces were poised to get rich.
“The early days of the web were fascinating,” said Daniel Munro, a visiting scholar in innovation studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy whose work focuses on the ethics of innovation and technology.
“Many people believed we were on the precipice of an information and communications utopia,” Munro said. “We hear echoes of these hopes with AI and other new technologies. But the reality was and is much more complicated.”
Indeed, the hype was overwhelming, and eventually the dot-com bubble burst.
While there were individuals who managed to make a lot of money building early web destinations, they were far from invincible, and many lost it all. Indeed, if there is a big takeaway from Web 1.0, perhaps it is the notion that there is no such thing as an internet company that is too big to fail.
And that brings us to the current state of affairs, wherein the internet, designed to be collaborative and distributed, has become dominated by a handful of centralized superpowers.
Ironically, 30 years later, the internet still feels new because, despite having roots in the infrastructure of the early web, there is so much that’s new all the time, from applications to the speed with which we’re able to connect to the different tools that can be networked.
New ways of using it are constantly emerging, both good and bad, said Munro, who adds that “the internet and its various applications are still changing the ways we think about privacy, free speech and safety, ownership, consent and other core values and principles.” So while the technology itself may be maturing, its implications and our ways of adjusting are still in their infancy.
But that feeling of newness can come at a cost.
The need for rules
Despite the fact that we’ve been living with the web for 30 years, it is still often treated like the Wild West, says John Havens, executive director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.
Or as former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian puts it, “the internet still acts as a teenager.”
Cavoukian, creator of the “privacy by design” framework recognized worldwide as a basis for data protection, says, “We have to change our mindset to one of prevention, thinking proactively about risks.”
While other industries have rules they need to follow, the internet has long remained an the outlier to any form of regulation.
New laws are starting to come about, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a massive undertaking from the European Union to enforce regulation around privacy that came into force last year.
But it remains challenging for governments to keep up with the pace of change.
But on the 30th birthday of the internet, and the cusp of Web 3.0, in which everything from your fridge to your car will be connected to the internet, it’s time to think not only about the past, but the future.
From the spread of misinformation about vaccines, to violent content slipping through the cracks of supposedly child-safe filters, to the collection and abuse of personal data, many of the worst parts of the internet remain unchallenged because there are no independent third parties holding the big tech companies accountable.
By intention and design, the web resists easy regulation, said Munro. And yet, he said, the issues it has introduced and reinforced need attention.
“Rules and regulation get a bad rap,” said Havens.
He adds, “Nobody gets upset that there are white lines drawn on the pavement when you’re trying to cross the street. It’s the white lines that remind sleepy drivers to tap on their brakes and not hit you as you try to cross.”
The internet has changed our lives in countless ways over the last three decades, for better and sometimes worse. But now it’s 30. It is officially an adult. And it’s time for it to follow some rules.
Or as Havens suggests, “let’s rephrase and say it’s time to prioritize human and environmental well-being.”
This story originally appeared on CBC