Happy Birthday, Web

Today Is the 25th anniversary of the most important invention that any individual ever came up with: the World Wide Web. Not even Gutenberg matched it. Korea had moveable type two centuries before he invented it.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, all by himself, on March 12, 1989. Then he implemented it over the next two years.

He did not patent the idea. He gave it away. He changed the world, mostly for the better.

He converted an invention of the United States government’s DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — into a decentralized, international institution that represents the greatest threat to political centralization in man’s history.

The Web is the incarnation of what F. A. Hayek called the spontaneous order. Out of a decentralized system of communication comes a series of mini-orders created by individuals. There is no central planning committee. The Web is the antithesis of a planning committee. Yet there is order at our fingertips.

The Web gives the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency enormous power to spy on the world. It also gave one man, Edward Snowden, the power to expose the spies as no one ever had before. Never before in the history of the spooks has there been this much bad publicity. One man did it.

Today, the lead story on Google News was this: Feinstein shifts tone in calling out CIA search. Senator Feinstein had been the Senate’s leading cheerleader in its use of the Web for snooping. Then she found out that she and her colleagues in Congress have been the targets. She is now on a rampage against the CIA. The story is all over the Web.

 

The head of the CIA insists that the CIA never spied on Congress. No one believes him, especially no one in Congress.

The Web has changed our world, and it will change it far more. That is because no one owns it as a whole. No one controls it. But its parts are privately owned. It is customer-centric. The users are in control.

PROFIT-SEEKING AND CREATIVITY

In an article in Britain’s Left-wing Guardian, the author bewails these aspects of the Web. They are the reasons I cheer it. These are the reasons it has changed our lives for the better. They all boil down to this fact:The state does not control it.

His first observation is true, and he applauds it.

1 The importance of “permissionless innovation”The thing that is most extraordinary about the internet is the way it enables permissionless innovation. This stems from two epoch-making design decisions made by its creators in the early 1970s: that there would be no central ownership or control; and that the network would not be optimised for any particular application: all it would do is take in data-packets from an application at one end, and do its best to deliver those packets to their destination.

It was entirely agnostic about the contents of those packets. If you had an idea for an application that could be realised using data-packets (and were smart enough to write the necessary software) then the network would do it for you with no questions asked. This had the effect of dramatically lowering the bar for innovation, and it resulted in an explosion of creativity.

What the designers of the internet created, in effect, was a global machine for springing surprises. The web was the first really big surprise and it came from an individual — Tim Berners-Lee — who, with a small group of helpers, wrote the necessary software and designed the protocols needed to implement the idea. And then he launched it on the world by putting it on the Cern internet server in 1991, without having to ask anybody’s permission.

In short, it is the product of one man’s creativity — not a committee.

This bothers him: free men are using a government-invented system to make profits. The horror!

3 The importance of having a network that is free and openThe internet was created by government and runs on open source software. Nobody “owns” it. Yet on this “free” foundation, colossal enterprises and fortunes have been built — a fact that the neoliberal fanatics who run internet companies often seem to forget. Berners-Lee could have been as rich as Croesus if he had viewed the web as a commercial opportunity.

I am such a fanatic. Whenever individuals can appropriate a government-funded project, profiting from it by removing it from government control, I’m in favor of it.

A free man gave something away. He took a government-funded operation, which was designed to overcome the threat of a nuclear bomb on a centralized military communications system — and made it productive. In short, he made tax money productive. In doing so, he reduced government power. This horrifies our critic.

4 Many of the things that are built on the web are neither free nor openMark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook because the web was free and open. But he hasn’t returned the compliment: his creation is not a platform from which young innovators can freely spring the next set of surprises. The same holds for most of the others who have built fortunes from exploiting the facilities offered by the web. The only real exception is Wikipedia.

This has placed private ownership at the top of the benefits of the Web. Private ownership unleashed has enormous creativity. It has mobilized the spontaneous order, merely by making opportunities available to all comers.

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