The World Wide Web turned 25 last week. After the invention of the printing press, this is the most defining development in the world of communication. Its impact is still growing and its full potential yet to be realised despite the many changes it has brought in its wake.
The role of an ombudsman in the Internet era is vastly different from earlier times. According to many media scholars, the general concept of ombudsmanship stems from a “Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play” established in 1913 at The New York World. And, in 1921, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo established a committee to receive and investigate reader complaints. Ombudsmen till a quarter of a century ago never had to wake up to see a set of queries in their mailboxes from readers residing in different time zones. In this digital age, the change in the pace is not restricted to how we get news but also how we respond to them.
At a deeper political and philosophical level, the Internet is one of the inventions that was a dissenter of its times. In the late 1980s, the world was fast debating the Dunkel Draft and the successor regime to GATT. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher redefined the broad economic model. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was groaning under the pressure of Perestroika and Glasnost. The focus was on private initiatives and the notion of commons was fast losing its appeal.
Online ‘Magna Carta’
But, in March 1989, a British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, submitted a rather simple sounding paper titled “Information Management: A Proposal” that gave birth to the World Wide Web. And how does he view his creation? Why did he not opt for a proprietary system where he would have minted billions? Why did he advocate an online “Magna Carta” to protect and enshrine the independence of the medium he created and the rights of its users worldwide?
His answers capture his concerns. In an interview to the BBC he said: “As to making lots of money? If I’d made it something which was a proprietary system then it would not have taken off. The only reason it took off is because people were prepared to invest in it because it’s open and free…The word ‘World’ was global, which was important. And ‘Web’? Mathematically it’s a web and gives the ‘impression that you can connect anything to anything. ‘WWW’ didn’t trip off the tongue for people in other countries but it was an acronym no one else had used’.”
He has spelt out his vision in his note to the Web We Want campaign. According to him, the Web has generated billions of dollars in economic growth, turned data into the gold of the 21st century, unleashed innovation in education and health care, whittled away geographic and social boundaries, revolutionised the media, and forced a reinvention of politics in many countries by enabling constant two-way dialogue between the rulers and the ruled.
Tim Berners-Lee maintains that there are a few principles which allowed the web, as a platform, to support such growth. “By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. Thousands of people worked together to build the early Web in an amazing, non-national spirit of collaboration; tens of thousands more invented the applications and services that make it so useful to us today, and there is still room for each one of us to create new things on and through the Web,” he declared.
The forthcoming “Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance,” to be held in São Paulo, Brazil, in April is a crucial development. In India, last month, a new coalition — Just Net Coalition (JNC) — was formed to provide inputs for this meeting. Its main arguments are: “a set of principles that should underpin the emergence of an Internet that advances human rights and social justice globally, and the reconfiguration of Internet governance into a truly democratic space. These principles are based on a recognition that the Internet has become a vitally important social infrastructure that profoundly impacts our societies; and on the observation that opportunities for the many to participate in the very real benefits of the Internet, and to fully realise its enormous potential, are being thwarted by growing control of the Internet by politically, economically and socially dominant actors. Existing governance arrangements for the global Internet suffer from a lack of democracy; an absence of legitimacy, accountability and transparency; excessive corporate influence and regulatory capture; and too few opportunities for effective participation by people, especially from developing countries.”
I am sure everyone will agree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee when he asks us “not to let anybody — governments, companies or individuals — take away or try to control the precious space we’ve gained on the Web to create, communicate, and collaborate freely.”