Today marks the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web. In order to be sure we have something to celebrate on the Web’s 50th birthday, it is essential we keep the Web free from new regulations.
On March 12, 1989, British researcher Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a concept for an “information management” system. The system would use the global network architecture underlying the then-burgeoning Internet to access both textual and graphical information and vastly improve user experience.
What followed Berners-Lee’s proposal revolutionized the Internet. In 1993, developers at the University of Illinois released an application called Mosaic that provided a new graphical user interface for navigating – or browsing – the Web. Within one year, Web traffic exploded and thousands of new websites launched. Soon thereafter, companies like Netscape and Microsoft introduced their own browsers with new features. Coders then developed new websites like Yahoo.com and Google.com that helped organize the rapidly growing volume of information available on the Web, thereby creating even more new products and services.
Today it is difficult to overstate the Web’s economic and social impact. Like the printing press, the Web has enabled widespread democratization of information and economic opportunity. Through websites, users can consume news from multiple sources and have the means to share and act on it. Some websites like Amazon.com have spawned entirely new means of commerce. And Facebook.com has provided the means through which more than one billion people can interact with each other.
According to Intel, the number of networked devices equals the number of people in the world. By 2015, there will be at least twice as many networked devices as people. With the continued growth in network connections, the possibilities for success on the Web will also grow.
The success of the Web is due its open, decentralized architecture. Light-touch regulatory frameworks have allowed the Web to expand and grow rapidly, and governments at all levels around the world have left Internet governance up to those who build and use it. Led by the United States, governments largely have restrained themselves from imposing complicated and burdensome tax, legal and regulatory policies on the Internet, which has enabled to Internet to grow and thrive.
Yet power-hungry governments and special interests worldwide now seek to rein in the Web for their own purposes. Recently, some international bodies and state legislators have proposed bills that would change the fundamental nature and values of the Web, such as banning anonymous online comments and subjecting the Internet to United Nations control. If websites are liable for third-party content, subject to Internet access taxes, hampered by rotary phone-era rules, or beholden to autocratic central authorities, many would find the Web more difficult to use and less innovative. It should not be surprising to anyone that many successful companies and ideas emerge and stay in countries that embrace the decentralized nature of the Internet and its current system of self-governance. Regulations, taxes and fees decrease ease of use and discourage innovation, and the state of the Web today is proof that self-governance can be the fountainhead of success.
Governments at the state, federal and global levels must recognize a decentralized and self-governed Internet is the best way to encourage more innovation and opportunity on the Web. Now is not the time to achieve short-term budgetary or electoral gain by levying new taxes, imposing new rules, or creating new authorities over the Web. Allow the Web to grow in its organic, self-governed, unrestrained way, and give the world something even better to celebrate in the next 25 years.
State Representative Blair Thoreson of North Dakota (HD-44) and Mr. Bartlett Cleland of the Institute for Policy Innovation are the co-chairs of the Task Force on Communications and Technology at the American Legislative Exchange Council. To learn more, visit www.alec.org.