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A Very Special Proposal Anniversary For The World Wide Web


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. 25 years ago today, a man who was working on computers at a physics lab got a little more ambitious. He offered up a proposal to connect just about every computer on Earth. That was the seed of the World Wide Web back in 1989. When he shared his idea, a lot of people didn't bother to read the memo. It took many more months for the first website to be born and years for the Web to become public.

From member station KQED in San Francisco Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Tim Berners-Lee was 33 years old and didn't ask his bosses for permission.

TIM BERNERS-LEE: Nobody really said no. Nobody really said yes. But I was allowed to do it on the side in between two other big projects.

SHAHANI: He was at CERN, the world's biggest particle physics lab in Switzerland where scientists work on smashing atoms.

BERNERS-LEE: I was sitting in an office in building 31.

SHAHANI: Berners-Lee had a nice view and some very fancy computers. His job officially was to figure out how to get them to talk to each other better. But he wanted to go one step further and create a universal language, a set of rules and system of addresses for all computers to talk across servers. And on March 12, 1989, he sent a memo off to peers and mentors. A year later, a lot of them asked, what ever happened to that project? He had to remind them.

BERNERS-LEE: I did give you - send you a memo. Oh, really? Oh, are you sure you sent it to me? Oh, well, send it to me again. So when I sent it around again, I dated it March, 1989, May, 1990 just to rub it in.

SHAHANI: And the rest is history, one that's well documented at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Curator Marc Weber walks past a wall of very geeky buttons...

MARC WEBER: Firm Up Your Floppy, Multi-use Me.

SHAHANI: And over to an exhibit that charts the evolution of the Internet from its infancy in the 1960s when it was just a bunch of government, corporate and university silos to the unified network we take for granted today. Berners-Lee ended up being knighted by the Queen of England. 1989 was a critical moment, though at the time, it seemed comically ambitious.

Weber explains Berners-Lee's right-hand man disapproved of the name World Wide Web.

WEBER: Wouldn't work well in European languages because a lot of people have trouble with V and W, getting them mixed up. And to have three Ws is really cruel.

SHAHANI: Berners-Lee had a clear agenda, to make the Web borderless. When his physics bosses didn't want to pay to scale it up, he got help outside. He started the World Wide Web Consortium, a nonprofit, and relentlessly recruited start-ups to try his new platform. He also got lucky. The main competition put up a pay wall and scared away users. Weber says throughout the tumultuous '90s, Berners-Lee was a digital statesman.

WEBER: He wanted to make sense of the madness, rather than replace it.

CHARLIE ROSE: The Washington Post reports the NSA is collecting hundreds of millions of email addresses.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: During the crisis, there has been disruption to international mobile phones...

SHAHANI: From the clamp down on Egyptian protestors to NSA surveillance, Berners-Lee is concerned about how governments are using the Web. He's against new proposals sprouting up to lock citizens' digital data inside their state borders.

BERNERS-LEE: You'll just end up making a new social network which only is for Brazilians or only is for Americans and that is the last thing the world needs right now.

SHAHANI: Berners-Lee has just launched a new campaign called Web@25.org to keep the platform open. For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.