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Unraveling the web's story

Making the Web For Everyone

The W3C official logo

I talked a bit about the importance of the WWW Wizards Workshop last time in my recap on the importance of 1995, but there was another essential element of that meeting I glossed over a bit.

In July of 1993, a few dozen developers huddled together at the O’Reilly offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had come together to talk about the World Wide Web, a technology that had changed each of their lives and for which they were fiercely passionate. They also had the particular distinction of being among the first in the world to call themselves web developers.

The room was fired up and energized by news still fresh on their minds. A few months before, towards the end of April, CERN announced that the web, and all of its associated code, was now part of the public domain, free for anyone to use for any purposes.

The memo that released the web to the public domain
This document officially released the web into the public domain and made it free for all. Photo © CERN

That radical, and frankly world-changing, decision was thanks in large part to one of that day’s attendees, creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He had pushed CERN towards that decision after an ill-fated choice by Gopher to adjust their licensing to allow for payments in the future. But even that was enough for corporations and government agencies to start dropping Gopher.

The web’s freedom (as in freely accessible, freely extendable and freely usable) was a deliberate design choice, one that Berners-Lee built into the very fabric of the technology. The technology itself wasn’t all that complicated, though it has grown fairly complex over the years. On top of a layer of simple protocols and markup standards was a much more powerful idea, that information itself should be free. After a bit of coaxing from Berners-Lee and some of his colleagues, CERN agreed. The web was now truly for everyone.

Gathered alongside Berners-Lee at the offices of O’Reilly were representatives from Xerox-PARC, CERN, and a group of programmers that had cobbled together the first browsers with names you might recognize, like Viola and Lynx and Mosaic. Each and every one of them believed the same thing. The web was a democratizing, transformative, game-changer of an idea. Its strength was in its decentralized structure, and the breakneck speed of development the simple protocols and standards it was built on allowed for.

The group had assembled for a three-day workshop, the WWW Wizards Workshop, at the request of Dale Dougherty, co-founder of O’Reilly Associates and founder of Global Network Navigator (GNN).

Dougherty, more than most at the time, really understood the value and potential of the web. There were some that still only saw the web as a part (albeit, an important one) of a continuum of other Internet technologies, like FTP or SGML. Like Berners-Lee, Dougherty didn’t see the web as an extension of anything. The web’s value, he would argue, came not from the information shared within, but from the people across the world and at all stations of life that it ultimately brought together. He would later say,

What we did not imagine was a Web of people, but a Web of documents

Dougherty hoped that if he brought the movers and shakers of the web together in one room, they could map out what the future of a free and open web might look like. There was a lot of ground to cover. The group discussed extensions to HTML, the possibility of a stylesheet language, the needs of browser makers, and proper encryption of secure data, which would ultimately become SSL. Development and applications of the web were moving full steam ahead. Each and every individual gathered together in that room had their own idea about what the web could, and should, do. The workshop was electrifying, but Berners-Lee sensed that the web would need a bit of guidance as it grew, a sort of unifying vision. In the years before, he had already made one attempt at that kind of thing.

Berners-Lee first brought the web to the IETF, an organization that writes and maintains standards for Internet technologies, a year earlier, in 1992. But it had taken him almost a year just to arrange a working group to begin standardizing the protocols and markup of the web. Berners-Lee found that process bureaucratic and process-driven. After a year of work, they had yet to finalize a six-page document on just the URI (later changed to URL). That would eventually happen, almost a full year after the workshop, but with all the big ideas being thrown out there, the web was going to need something that could move much, much quicker.

Fortunately, Berners-Lee had an idea for that. An idea that he had been fleshing out a bit in recent months. An idea for a consortium, a governing body for the web that could help standardize the various applications and developments that were being built with it. A consortium could help with the web’s priorities, numerous that they were, and move alongside the shifting landscape of the web to forge a path forward when possible, and respond to changes from outside when necessary.

At the workshop, the consortium idea garnered mostly favorable reviews. There was some disagreement on the particulars, like whether the group should be more of a consortium, or an organization, or a loosely defined club, but everybody in the room understood that something like a consortium would be necessary for the web’s future. Without it, the web could easily fall victim to a tangled mess of special interests and proprietary implementations. They brainstormed a bit, mapped a few things out on a whiteboard, and went their separate ways. But Berners-Lee found himself with new focus and renewed purpose.

Over the next few months, he would talk to experts all over the world about what his consortium might look like, narrowing down the business model and direction. Berners-Lee came away from these talks with a few key insights that would guide just about all of his decisions.

The first was that the web’s consortium should be a neutral third party, untethered from any single vision or corporate entity. The second was that a fully articulated standard, akin to what the IETF had painstakingly put together, would prove to be too limiting for the pace of the web. Instead, the consortium would draft evolving proposals and formal recommendations that browser makers and developers could follow. The third was that the consortium should not be confined to a single location but rather globally distributed, with at least two locations, one in the United States and one in Europe.

Just about a year after the Wizards Workshop, on May 25, 1994, a group of web developers once again gathered together, this time in Geneva. The group this time was a bit bigger. Just around 350 people were in attendance at the first ever International WWW Conference.

Tim Berners-Lee, Dr. Joseph Hardin and Robert Calliau at the First International WWW Conference in Geneva, Photo © CERN

A lot had happened in a year. The folks at Mosaic had expanded their team to a wider commercial market, and even Microsoft was beginning to test the waters of the web. A new version of HTML, known as HTML+, was a pretty major topic of conversation. And the first ever web-only companies were sprouting up.

Berners-Lee took to the stage for the keynote speech of the conference. As he looked out at the audience, nervous though he was, he felt immense pride for what he had helped build. As we all well know, it was to soon become a transformative medium that, to this day, has changed industries, democratized access to information, and on its best days, brought global communities together. In that moment though all Berners-Lee knew was that the web, it seemed, was here to stay. That was more than enough.

During his speech, Berners-Lee once again proposed a consortium, laying out a general direction the organization would take. But on that day, he added another goal to the project. The web, he argued, should be a force for good. Every decision made about the technology should be made with the goal of helping people around the world. Whether or not we’ve accomplished that goal is up for debate. But it was a founding ideal of the web.

A few months later, in July of 1994, MIT formally announced that their Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) would be the U.S. host of the brand new World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that Berners-Lee himself would run. CERN was to be the European host.

The W3C, as it would soon be shortened too, would organize themselves into working groups to draft specifications for the various technologies of the web, like HTML and HTTP and the URI. The specifications would be informed by work being done out in the world, by developers and by browsers, and if a new feature or extension was widely accepted, it would be backported into a specification. The W3C would also help build tools and resources for web developers as they tested out new ideas.

On December 14, 1994 the W3C held their first official meeting at MIT. They had recruited around two dozen members from browsers and the technology landscape. Members paid the consortium a yearly fee to participate, fees that would in turn be used to bring on staff to manage the process and experiment with new standards. The air was filled with excitement as the newly forged group discussed extensions to HTML, and the kind of tools they would need to begin experimentations. Then, everyone went home.

The next day marked a pretty major release of what would eventually become Netscape Navigator. The day after that, December 16, CERN dropped out as European host for the W3C.

Internally, CERN had decided to shift their priorities towards completion of the Large Hadron Collider (which they have since built by the way). That left very little room for the web. That absence didn’t last long though. In April of 1995, the W3C reached an agreement with the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) to fill the vacuum. The W3C was finally complete.

The W3C has been responsible for the trajectory of the web, for its development and advancements and even for its advocacy. Over the years it’s grown into a fully mature, global organization with fleshed out processes and procedures. And even today, Berners-Lee is fighting to make sure the web stays open, as it always was intended to be.


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