Who owns and runs the Internet: the role of W3C

It's easy to forget that, when Tim Berners-Lee first thought up what he called the World Wide Web in 1990, it was intended simply as a tool for the use of fellow scientists associated with CERN, the particle physics research centre that straddles the French/Swiss border near Geneva. The TCP/IP protocol was already offering the infrastructure. Berners-Lee's genius was to find a way of connecting hypertext with the Internet and personal computers. This would provide a single information network to help CERN physicists share computer-stored information at the laboratory.

Info.cern.ch was the address of the world's first-ever website and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN. During 1991 servers appeared in other institutions in Europe. By November 1992, there were 26 servers in the world, and by October 1993 the figure had increased to over 200 known web servers. In February 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released the first version of Mosaic, which was to make the Web available to people using PCs and Apple Macintoshes. Mosaic became Netscape - and the magic of the Web was fully unleashed.

Launch of W3C

However, Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau at CERN were concerned that fundamental Web standards should remain free to all. At the end of April 1993, they were given a declaration by CERN that the Web protocol and code could be used free of charge without any constraints. The challenge was to create a body to oversee the Web's development - one that could help those involved in developing servers and browsers agree on how the Web should operate.

The result was the World Wide Web Consortium (known universally as W3C), started in 1994 by agreement between CERN and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), under the enthusiastic patronage of the late Michael Dertouzos, head of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science.

Today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (he was given a UK knighthood in 2004) remains as Director of W3C, whose mission remains simply: "to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web".

Global membership

Members ot W3C today include vendors of technology products and services, content providers, corporate users, research laboratories, standards bodies and governments. They share a commitment to work and exchange ideas with more than 350 members in a vendor-neutral forum.

Since it was founded W3C has published more than 110 Web standards and guidelines, known as W3C recommendations. These include, for example, Extensible Markup Language (XML) - a simple, very flexible text originally designed to meet the challenges of large-scale electronic publishing, but increasingly playing an important role in the exchange of a wide variety of data on the Web and elsewhere.

Central to everything is the determination to avoid market fragmentation, which could lead to Web fragmentation. A dedicated full-time staff of technical and invited experts work together at W3C offices at MIT, as well as through offices around the world, in order to ensure the Web continues to thrive, accommodating the growing diversity of people, hardware and software. As Berners-Lee comments:

"W3C is where the future of the Web is made. Our members work together to design and standardize technologies that build on the Web's universality. W3C creates the power to communicate, to exchange information and to write dynamic applications for anyone, anywhere, anytime, using any device."

Berners-Lee has been working in recent years on his vision of the next stage of the World Wide Web, the semantic Web. The vision is to define the semantics of information and services, allowing the Web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content. At its core, the semantic Web has a set of design principles, collaborative working groups, and a range of enabling technologies. More information can be found at www.w3.org/2001/sw.

Always looking forward, in May this year W3C invited participation in its new Mobile Web for Development (MW4D) interest Group, set up to explore the potential of mobile technology to help bridge the digital divide. The Group is part of W3C's Mobile Web Initiative (MWI), which aims to identify and resolve challenges and issues of accessing the Web when on the move, and is part of the Digital World Forum project www.digitalworldforum.eu.

NOTE: W3C conducts most of its work through its Web site, maintaining more than one million Web pages at www.w3.org plus more than another million pages of mailing list archives at lists.w3.org.

NOTE: People have often wondered why Tim Berners-Lee did not follow others in seeking to make a fortune out of his invention. In his book 'Weaving the Web' (Harper 1999), he reasoned that starting a company would have risked turning the Web into competing proprietary products. He goes on: "Starting a consortium represented the best way for me to see the full span of the Web community as it spread into more and more areas. My decision not to turn the Web into my commercial venture was not any great act of altruism." That may be the case, but there can be no doubt that his decision has been of immeasurable benefit to the global community.