The World Wide Web is celebrating its birthday.  Thirty years ago, at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee first proposed an information system that would be able to link documents on different servers together using hypertext. For many people, the Internet and WWW pretty much mean the same thing, but there was in fact an Internet before the Web: people would send e-mails, discuss in newsgroups, read documents using Gopher or search FTP servers using Archie. However, it’s fair to say that without the Web, the Internet would never have grown into the force it is today.

The Web has brought us many good things, like e-commerce, social media and funny cat videos, but recently we’re beginning to see more of a dark side too: more and more of our life is being controlled by a few giant online corporations, we’re reading fake news, our privacy is at risk and hackers are after us. So, what can we expect for the next few years?

Tim Berners-Lee actually has some great ideas on that, as he explains in the Guardian: “The web is for everyone,” he says, “and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”

The Internet: from a decentral beginning…

From its earliest days, the Internet was designed as a decentralised network: instead of requiring all communication to go through one central piece of hardware, the Internet allowed all kinds of networks and computers to connect to each other as and when they saw fit. More importantly, the Internet was envisioned as a tool for humans to connect, work together and share information over long distances. People were even seeing this new network as a force of liberation, a carrier of free speech. Because of its decentral nature, no one organisation would be able to control it and governments would no longer be able to suppress information.

…into the hands of companies and governments

So, what happened? (Apart from the fact that we seem to be more interested in sharing funny cat videos than in exchanging grand ideas…) Despite its decentral nature. some hosts on the Internet are more equal than others. Most popular network applications are based on the client-server model. We, the clients, contact a server to request a service: please show me this website, or please send out this mail for me. At first that didn’t seem much of a problem, since anyone could (and still can) set up a server if they desire.

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Over the last days, we’ve seen a lot of discussion about Net Neutrality, triggered by the FCC’s announcement that they are planning to put an end to current rules that, at the moment, guarantee Net Neutrality in the United States.

What is Net Neutrality and should you care? Net Neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers treat all network traffic equally, without distinguishing between the contents of the traffic, who’s sending it or who’s receiving it.

Sounds like a great idea, right? But wait, wouldn’t it actually be useful if we prioritised video streaming over other things? I could be binge watching the latest season of Game of Thrones without hick-ups or have that Skype call without interruptions, even at times when the network is busy. So what if someone else needs to wait a few seconds longer for their download to finish… If we can see somebody is sending spam or spreading a virus, shouldn’t we make an effort to block that traffic, instead of letting it flow unhindered with the other packets?

Now, enter the company that wants to make a profit. What if your Internet Service Provider slowed down or blocked your downloads, without letting you know? What if your ISP allowed you to stream music for free, but only from the online services they have a partnership with? And you had to pay extra for the data you use when streaming from your own favourite service?

These things are already happening and of course companies will come up with more and more creative ideas. That isn’t neccessarily going to make the Internet a better place. So, Net Neutrality is in fact a pretty big issue with a lot of impact on how we’ll be using the Internet in the future. There’s more than one side to this, so I encourage you to do some research and take your stand!