[This is an edited/corrected ver­sion of the tran­script post­ed by the World Wide Web Foundation (licensed CC-BY). Unfortunately, only part of the orig­i­nal video record­ing is avail­able, so the cut­off is indi­cat­ed below and only min­i­mal edits were made from there on.]

Well, thank you, Alberto, for those words. Thank you for invit­ing us to the din­ner. Thank you for your sup­port. I sup­pose the path to my stand­ing here traces its way at one point back in March to a con­ver­sa­tion I had with Gary Kebbel at anoth­er din­ner with a lot few­er peo­ple. And at that din­ner, we were just chat­ting across a small table about our own hopes and fears. And it turned out that Gary’s hopes and fears for jour­nal­ism, and I sup­pose maybe the hopes and fears of the Knight Foundation through his eyes, had an awful lot of over­lap with the things that I felt about the Web. And of course a lot of jour­nal­ism hap­pens on the Web, and an impor­tant part of the Web is journalism.

And we were wor­ried. We were con­cerned about, with so much infor­ma­tion how do you tell where some­thing came from? How do you tell what’s good and bad? What’s reli­able infor­ma­tion or not? What is commercially-biased infor­ma­tion? We had con­cerns about how, if you are going to label infor­ma­tion good and bad, who’s going to start mak­ing the deci­sions in the new world? How can you build mer­i­toc­ra­cies which, some­how, select those people?

In gen­er­al, I sup­pose, the big ques­tion for journalism—the big ques­tion for the Web—does it sup­port democ­ra­cy? What does it take to sup­port democ­ra­cy? So it turns out that we were both get­ting very excit­ed about these two things, and indi­rect­ly that led to my com­ing here. But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. I came to talk to you about think­ing about the future of the Web, very much more broad­ly, and see if I can enlist your help in that.

But I’ll start by going back to the begin­ning of the Web. In fact let’s go a lit­tle bit fur­ther back, 1989. I’m a pro­gram­mer. I’m work­ing at CERN. I’m a soft­ware engi­neer. I’m build­ing pieces of soft­ware to work in that huge accel­er­a­tor, that huge col­lid­er, that they had built. CERN is on the French-Swiss bor­der; the Collider is under­ground. At that time, the big col­lid­er was the Large Electron-Positron Collider. Now you may have heard in the news recent­ly about the Large Hadron Collider that they’ve just turned on. Well, the Large Hadron Collider, they just built in the tun­nel which they made for the pre­vi­ous one. And as it hap­pens, back in 1989, in fact they were just start­ing that project. Okay. That’s 1989.

I wrote a memo point­ing out that with the huge amount of infor­ma­tion around at CERN that you had to keep track off, all those big pieces of— You may have seen on tele­vi­sion because of the Large Hadron Collider, that there are huge pieces of equip­ment there. And they had [been] built by teams from all over the plan­et, and these teams come togeth­er using dif­fer­ent com­put­er sys­tems, using dif­fer­ent soft­ware, dif­fer­ent doc­u­men­ta­tion for­mats. They of course speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages, but they try at CERN to restrict them­selves to a mix­ture of English and French. But if you’re sit­ting there as a soft­ware engi­neer try­ing to make head and tail of it, you feel you real­ly need an inte­grat­ed infor­ma­tion sys­tem. Because you have to go and con­nect to this com­put­er for that piece of infor­ma­tion, and this com­put­er for that piece of infor­ma­tion. And when you con­nect to it you have to learn a new pro­gram on each computer.

So that was the sit­u­a­tion I was in. And I wrote a memo say­ing, We should have a glob­al hyper­text sys­tem to fix this.” The memo, I dis­trib­uted it to a few peo­ple but there’s nowhere real­ly to dis­trib­ute it to at CERN because CERN is a physics lab. It did­n’t have com­mit­tees for build­ing pro­grams and hyper­text systems.

So what hap­pened was basi­cal­ly noth­ing for eigh­teen months. But because the old lab in fact was more or less com­plete and the new LHC had­n’t real­ly ramped up, they weren’t real­ly quite get­ting into the swing of cre­at­ing that, there was a bit of a lull. And dur­ing that lull, my boss Mike Sendal said at one point, Well, why don’t you— Tim, why don’t you try out this new com­put­er you’ve got, this new fan­cy NeXT big black box you’ve got­ten? Why don’t you try it out with some­thing, devel­op some­thing? Why don’t you – you need some pro­gram just to see how good it is as a plat­form for devel­op­ing things on? Why don’t you do that do that hyper­text thing you were talk­ing about?” So, okay! Sure, Mike.”

So I went away and start­ed mid­dle of October and start­ed pro­gram­ming. So I wrote a thing which you would prob­a­bly rec­og­nize as a Web brows­er. Actually it was a browser/editor. It would allow you to cre­ate Web pages, too, because I thought that actu­al­ly being able to cre­ate was just as impor­tant as being able to read.

When I cre­at­ed the program—there’s a nice lit­tle sort of pro­gram for gen­er­at­ing program[s] on that machine. You can say I want to write a new pro­gram and the first thing it asks you is, Okay, what’s the name of it?” Typed in World Wide Web”. I’d thought about it a bit. I’d reject­ed a few oth­er things, but you know World Wide Web” kind of came to the top of the pile of infor­ma­tion mine” and things, and mine of infor­ma­tion.” They were…well, it became…for bet­ter or worse I decid­ed to call it the World Wide Web.” 

I wrote the pro­gram, wrote a Web serv­er, and defined more impor­tant­ly the lan­guages which those spoke. The com­put­er lan­guage for send­ing Web pages across the Internet, which I called HTML, and the pro­to­col which hap­pens between the two com­put­ers, the Web serv­er and the Web client, called HTTP, and so on. And these URLs, which you know these things start http” and all that.

And that was all tech­ni­cal. That was all the tech­ni­cal bits of invent­ing the Web. But of course, to the design of the Web there’s a lot that isn’t tech­ni­cal. There’s a lot that’s social. Because when some­body makes a link, when a link is cre­at­ed from your blog, you link to some­body else’s blog, well, it’s a per­son that makes the link. It’s a per­son that fol­lows the link if they want to. So, real­ly, the fact that the whole Web thing works is because peo­ple are moti­vat­ed. And it’s real­ly a sys­tem of peo­ple. Yes, it’s enabled by technology.

So as time went on, we stopped think­ing about the Internet as a col­lec­tion of com­put­ers, and we stopped think­ing about the Web as a col­lec­tion of con­nect­ed pages. And now we think of the Web as human­i­ty con­nect­ed. There’s always been an impor­tant social aspect to it. In fact, there were a lot of social con­straints behind its growth. For exam­ple, ear­ly on there was a cru­cial point— At that point… Does any­body remem­ber Gopher? Who remem­bers the Internet Gopher? One, two, three—yes! Okay, I know you do. I know you. But not very many peo­ple remem­ber the Internet Gopher.

Well folks, the rea­son that the rest of you don’t remem­ber the Internet Gopher is the Internet Gopher, it was a won­der­ful sys­tem. It was very like the Web and in fact it was grow­ing expo­nen­tial­ly like this when the Web was grow­ing expo­nen­tial­ly like this. [ges­tures to indi­cate two ris­ing slopes, the sec­ond at a slow­er rate] But at a cer­tain point the University of Minnesota, which had pro­duced the Gopher sys­tem, sent out a lit­tle email that went around which said that there was just a remote pos­si­bil­i­ty that pos­si­bly, if you were a com­mer­cial per­son, maybe if you were run­ning a serv­er, they might charge a very small fee for using the system.

So at con­fer­ences, at one par­tic­u­lar con­fer­ence I remem­ber, I was just besieged by peo­ple in the cor­ri­dor say­ing, We have dropped. We are not doing any­thing. You know, I’ve been doing all these for free in my garage, why should I work for the University of Minnesota in my spare time?” Or, I work for a big com­pa­ny. My lawyers won’t allow me to touch the code because now this is a pro­pri­etary sys­tem. What’s the sto­ry with the World Wide Web?”

So actu­al­ly, I did­n’t have a sto­ry then. My col­league, Robert Cailliau and I, it took us eigh­teen months to per­suade CERN that the tech­nol­o­gy behind the World Wide Web should be royalty-free for any­body to use. But it hap­pened, and that was real­ly impo— So, a few months lat­er I could go back to them and say, You’re safe. You can work on it.” And then Gopher, you could look at the charts of the amount of Internet traf­fic. Gopher… [hand ges­ture indi­cat­ing a sud­den drop]. Web… [hand ges­ture indi­cat­ing a quick­ly ris­ing slope] And the rest, well, it was expo­nen­tial. The expo­nen­tials con­tin­ued in a fright­en­ing fash­ion. But if CERN had not made that real­ly impor­tant social step of say­ing that the Web would be royalty-free, we would not be here talk­ing about it. The Internet would be a very dif­fer­ent place.

So that was an impor­tant step in the evo­lu­tion of the World Wide Web. And anoth­er impor­tant step hap­pened a few years lat­er. The first few years, I had to per­suade a lot of peo­ple that the Web would­n’t be too com­pli­cat­ed, would be a good idea. I had to try to find peo­ple to take the idea that I’d had and I’d imple­ment­ed on this NeXT machine— Anybody remem­ber the black NeXT machine? Yeah? Anybody still got one? Yeah. Yeah, okay. So I need­ed it [to] run on PC and I need­ed it to run on Mac. And peo­ple across the world actu­al­ly vol­un­teered and start­ed to write browsers. And the famous one of course was the one that Marc Andreessen wrote, NCSA

But as more and more peo­ple start­ed writ­ing Web browsers, they start­ed mak­ing them more fan­cy. They added fea­tures. At first, the orig­i­nal HTML did­n’t have pic­tures, did­n’t have tables. So they added tables. But when you put a table into your Web page, you had to do it dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on whether you want­ed to read it in this brows­er or that brows­er. And now, this was clear­ly going to be the end of the Web as we know it. The real­ly impor­tant point about the Web is it’s one Web. When you make a hyper­text link from a Web page, you can poten­tial­ly make it to absolute­ly any­thing on the Web. Everything on the Web has got a URI. (One of those things start­ing http”; URL if you like.) You can take it and you can use that, make a link, and you could make that thing link to any­where. So it’s one big sys­tem. That is cru­cial. If it had bro­ken into pieces, it would­n’t have worked. And there was a threat that it was going to break into pieces. Everybody was wor­ried. Everybody want­ed to have tables, but they want­ed tables in the same form.

Something unusu­al hap­pened at one point. I was this pro­gram­mer at CERN. CERN is a big cam­pus. Lots of peo­ple wan­der­ing around look­ing like…you know, stu­dent physi­cists, pro­gram­mers, kind of very un-corporate. But I got a call from the CERN recep­tion, which it does have one. And these cor­po­rate types turned up. They came from the American com­put­er com­pa­ny, Digital Equipment Corporation. They had suits, and they want­ed to see me.

So I found some­thing which looked like a con­fer­ence room and put them in it, and found what they want­ed. And they were the team that was plan­ning Digital Equipment Corporation’s Internet strat­e­gy. And they were plan­ning to turn the com­pa­ny around and make that com­pa­ny real­ly com­plete­ly reset itself, giv­en the Internet.

And so they want­ed to know, if we’re going to be bas­ing every­thing on this Web thing, and it’s based on all these spec­i­fi­ca­tions which you’ve got on a disk some­where in your office (sort of won­der­ing which disk it was), then how can we make sure it’s a lit­tle more sta­ble? How can we make it evolve? How can we make sure that our engi­neers can get their new ideas out into it? How can we make sure that as it expands, as it evolves, it does every­thing that we want, but it stays one Web? And one of them sug­gest­ed in fact that I should put togeth­er a con­sor­tium, maybe that MIT might agree to host it as a neu­tral body. 

Well in fact, to cut a long sto­ry short yeah, they did. MIT were hap­py to host it as they’d host­ed con­sor­tia before. And also they were hap­py for it not to just be an American thing and for us to have a base in Japan and a base in Europe. 

So that was 1994, was when the World Wide Web Consortium start­ed. And since then it’s been a neu­tral body, and it’s been a very impor­tant part of the Web because it’s where all these com­pet­ing ven­dors of Web tech­nol­o­gy come to agree on the stan­dards. And with­out the stan­dards we just would­n’t have one Web. The world gets by with hav­ing a dif­fer­ent plug on elec­tri­cal things. You kin­da get by, any­way. It’s a pain. But you know, you can get by by hav­ing a dif­fer­ent plug and all these kind of things that you take when you go abroad to plug into the pow­er some­where else. It can’t get by if all the Web servers from a par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny speak one lan­guage, and all the Web browsers from anoth­er com­pa­ny speak a dif­fer­ent one. It has to be one Web. The Consortium was a real­ly impor­tant part of putting that togeth­er. So that was anoth­er impor­tant step in the evo­lu­tion, set­ting up the Consortium to set the standards.

[Available record­ing ends here]

And as time went on, Consortium ran with a steady tech­ni­cal staff, about six­ty peo­ple, keep­ing this going and var­i­ous new tech­nolo­gies came in and became deployed. Some work bet­ter than oth­ers, some are great tech­nolo­gies but not com­plete­ly deployed on all browsers like Scalable Vector Graphics, great tech­nol­o­gy deployed on all browsers but one, almost there.

But as time went on, it was clear that we had to do more than just roll out the stan­dards. Because stan­dards typ­i­cal­ly are agree­ing about doing things we know how to do. You don’t make a stan­dard nor­mal­ly until it’s some­thing you know how to do. What about the things we don’t know how to do? Shouldn’t we be hav­ing stu­dents think more broad­ly? Shouldn’t we be think­ing about the Web a bit fur­ther out?

And in fact, think­ing about the Web, the Web itself now a few years on, it’s not a col­lec­tion of Web servers. Yes, there was a time I had a list of Web servers. I’ve got a copy that when I had twenty-six entries on it. But it was a lot more than a very large list of Web servers. It was some­thing so big nobody could keep the whole list.

And even the com­pa­nies that did try to crawl over the whole Web and keep huge index­es of it, they found that actu­al­ly has a very com­pli­cat­ed struc­ture. It has some real­ly, real­ly strong nodes which have huge num­bers of links point­ing to them. It has the famous Long Tail of lots and lots and lots of very small sites. It has lit­tle com­mu­ni­ties. Communities that some­times are geo­graph­i­cal, some­times not, has a com­pli­cat­ed structure.

Every now and again it has a new phe­nom­e­non starts. The wiki changes the way we cre­ate com­mu­nal infor­ma­tion in a way that I would­n’t have guessed would have worked. And I think a lot of peo­ple who have guessed would­n’t work. But we have Wikipedia which in gen­er­al is not com­plete non­sense. And we have blogs, which you may think are com­plete non­sense except for your blog of course.

But that again pro­duced a new genre. So we have these new things crop­ping up and we don’t – but the Web itself con­nect­ed human­i­ty with all its com­plex­i­ty, its size, there are more – about the same num­ber rough­ly of web­pages out there as there are neu­rons in your brain. The bad news is the num­ber of web­pages is increas­ing. [Laughter]

So, it’s big and it’s com­pli­cat­ed and for your brain we have cog­ni­tive sci­ence which brings togeth­er lots of dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines to look at the brain for we decid­ed we need web sites. So we start­ed talk­ing about web sites three years ago. And we cre­at­ed a Web Science Research Initiative in fact, ini­ti­at­ed by some peo­ple from Southampton University in the UK and MIT but lots of oth­er peo­ple join­ing in. And web sites now, three years on, we’ve had work­shops to try and define new chal­lenges. We’ve got stu­dent exchange pro­grams. We want to get peo­ple to col­lab­o­rate togeth­er and it’s start­ing to hap­pen. That is in fact com­ing out in Scientific American, there’s a nice arti­cle on Web Science you might want to look at.

So, Web Science now adds to the stan­dards. We now have a sep­a­rate but impor­tant­ly con­nect­ed body of effort going on towards the sci­ence, not the sci­ence of study­ing it but of course also build­ing it, for engi­neer­ing it. Science in the sense of com­put­er sci­ence, writ­ing pro­grams too.

So we have the stan­dards and we have the sci­ence. And it was actu­al­ly, to sort of the segue into the next piece, for me was part­ly when we were sit­ting down at the Web Science Research Initiative, defin­ing as one does the goal for the orga­ni­za­tion. And we decid­ed that prob­a­bly the best way to define the goal for Web Science was that the Web should some­how opti­mal­ly serve human­i­ty. That the Web should ser­vice human­i­ty. That we should study the Web, devel­op it, and check that it is serv­ing humanity.

Well, you know, when you’re work­ing on stan­dards and you’re work­ing on sci­ence, you’re doing research and you’ve got that goal that the Web should serve human­i­ty. You can’t just sit there and do research about what’s going to put the next lat­est tech­nol­o­gy into the hands of the exec­u­tive, in their PDA on the exec­u­tive chair. Or the high-powered sci­en­tist who’s going to use the Web on their desk to dis­cov­er course to disease.

When you talk about human­i­ty, you can’t eth­i­cal­ly ignore the fact that 80%, I have heard, of the world don’t use the Web. There are peo­ple who can’t use the Web because they just don’t have any con­nec­tiv­i­ty. But I think also about the peo­ple who actu­al­ly like if 80% of the world who do have sig­nal, they could if they had the right device, they had a plan and the device had some sort of a Web brows­er on them that worked. And there was some­thing use­ful on the Web which would work for them and the infor­ma­tion was actu­al­ly in their native tongue. And they were lit­er­ate or it pro­vid­ed some­way of get­ting infor­ma­tion which worked with some­body who was illit­er­ate. And if the source of things they want to do, the sort of social net­work­ing they want­ed to do actu­al­ly worked with their cul­ture in the sort of net­work­ing they want to do, then those peo­ple would be able to use it.

So as we devel­op the Web, we should­n’t just aim to make it the most fan­cy thing but we should also have a third part which is being very aware of the needs of soci­ety as a whole. So there is a third piece.

Now, I must admit, I had some con­cerns about this. Because I felt that it is pos­si­ble that when you’re look­ing at a devel­op­ing coun­try, real­ly what they need is health­care. They need food. They need clean water and who are we as tech­nol­o­gists to come along, who are we who should sug­gest that they need our Internet, the thing that we play with. And I express this in fact, sit­ting down on a log by a lake, talk­ing to a mis­sion­ary. Somebody who’d been to out­er Africa and who had done lot of work, work­ing with peo­ple who had been in war-torn areas, recov­er­ing from the ter­ri­ble effects of war.

And so, I sug­gest­ed that maybe we should leave it and wait until there was water in there. And she said, Well,” all she had to do was tell me one sto­ry of one per­son. This per­son, this man had taught him­self English by using var­i­ous books that he’d come across. Among them are the bible I under­stand, some­thing that he could get in both lan­guages. Having taught him­self English and hav­ing got some sort of rudi­men­ta­ry Internet con­nec­tion, then he could sell his ser­vices as a trans­la­tor on the open mar­ket out there in the big wide world. He could not only – so he could bring mon­ey into the vil­lage but also he could be a chan­nel to bring infor­ma­tion into the vil­lage. He could trans­late the stuff that was out there into the vil­lage. And he could oper­ate – so he could enable commerce.

So, there are a lot of anec­dotes we’ve heard about both ways. I think we real­ly have to lis­ten to the sto­ries, go out there, under­stand and talk to every­body who’s got expe­ri­ence about it. To make sure that we real­ly do under­stand what the needs are before we make any rash assump­tions about the fact that – assum­ing that they would want the same sort of thing which we would want.

But, the results of this then of step­ping back is, if you like, for me the next phase in the evo­lu­tion of the Web. The next piece of, if you like, of duty. Of the thing that we feel we have to do that we have an oblig­a­tion to do. And that is that there is the Web for all of soci­ety. There is the sci­ence and the standards.

And so, it is my plea­sure and hon­or to unveil this evening at this din­ner that we will be cre­at­ing a Web Foundation. The Web Foundation will coor­di­nate these three things. It will be unique in that it will be able to use the expe­ri­ence to influ­ence the research. Use the research to sug­gest to peo­ple in the under­served areas what might be pos­si­ble. To let them think out­side the box and demand some­thing bet­ter. And use both of these to feed into the process that makes the stan­dards, that make the new pro­to­cols for the Web.

So, the Web Foundation’s mis­sion is to advance one Web. One Web which is free and open. I don’t need to talk to you about the First Amendment. I talked in a lot of oth­er places about Net neu­tral­i­ty, the open­ness of the Web. The fact that I can choose what source and infor­ma­tion I take is very important.

So, it will advance one Web that’s free and open. And it will extend the capa­bil­i­ties of the Web. The capa­bil­i­ties and also the robust­ness of the Web. Can we trust this thing? It will still be there in a few years time. How do we know? And also, it will extend the ben­e­fit of the Web to every­body on the plan­et. It will try to. It will do it’s best to do these three things. [Applause]

So, I men­tioned I’m grate­ful to being here. While I’m grate­ful for the fact that the Knight Foundation in fact have giv­en us a $200,000 plan­ning grant in order to start this work to start fig­ur­ing out how to put togeth­er the Foundation. Steve Bratt, my col­league at the World Wide Consortium has guar­an­teed, has vol­un­teered to take on the job of lead­ing the Web Foundation. Certainly in these ear­ly stages as it takes off.

You know this is not a launch. This is just, as I say the start­ing of the plan­ning. We expect a launch as we put it togeth­er with our ini­tial found­ing donors. We expect a launch at the begin­ning of next year. In the mean­time, watch this space. Well actu­al­ly, watch www​.web​foun​da​tion​.org, a domain name to which we actu­al­ly got hold of a cou­ple of days ago. Before that, we had to have a dash in it. So now, you can use all one word.

So, the Web Foundation we’re putting togeth­er, it’s in a way it feels like a very big under­tak­ing. Because the things that we hope for, for the Web, well in a way, we want the Web to sup­port human­i­ty. Of course, we have huge hopes for human­i­ty. Many of them in this build­ing the hopes of infor­ma­tion ser­vice to human­i­ty you see are sort of etched into var­i­ous pieces of rock around this build­ing. The hope that peo­ple will be able to build on the Web.

But it’s all this ques­tion of build­ing on the Web you noticed? It’s not that we’re going to design the Web to do a par­tic­u­lar thing for a par­tic­u­lar appli­ca­tion. The point about the Web is it’s a plat­form. It should be, for the next gen­er­a­tion, for the peo­ple who are stu­dents now, for peo­ple who are chil­dren now, they should find that the Web is a can­vas that they can draw won­der­ful things on. If some­body asks me, OK, so what’s going to be the result in ten years? What do you imag­ine is going to be the result in 10 years if this all works out?” And the answer is, well, my imag­i­na­tion ought not to be a gaug­ing fac­tor. If we in the end of ten years pro­duced every­thing I can imag­ine, we have failed. The idea is to pro­duce every­thing oth­er peo­ple can imagine.

I just hope that they will take the foun­da­tion that we give them – sor­ry about the pun – foun­da­tion in the Web. They will take it and they will build on it and they will be able to give us tools. Give the next gen­er­a­tion tools to be able to solve the huge issues that we have. Allow sci­en­tists to col­lab­o­rate togeth­er across the world to share their half-born ideas and be able to find the cures for dis­ease. And pur­sue those ideas about new forms of democ­ra­cy and mer­i­toc­ra­cy that had been cre­at­ed on the Web. Pursue them and maybe even in web sites, and by build­ing new web pro­to­cols, build new forms of democ­ra­cy that turn out to be actu­al­ly even bet­ter. Even more effi­cient, bet­ter forms of argu­ment, bet­ter trans­paren­cy, bet­ter account­abil­i­ty so that we can actu­al­ly move on and improve the way we man­age our­selves, OK?

They’re huge hopes and dreams in a way and it’s a big step. I’m very hon­ored and grate­ful that we’re mak­ing the first lit­tle steps towards the Web Foundation here tonight. Thank you.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.