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Inventor of World Wide Web Snags Computer Science’s Top Prize

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has snagged one of the most prestigious prizes in computer science: the A.M. Turing Award.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the organization that awards the $1 million prize, announced the Turing Award winner earlier this week. The computer science rockstar has picked up more than a dozen major prizes and honorific titles over the years; for instance, he’s earned a place in the Internet Hall of Fame and has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

“The first-ever World Wide Web site went online in 1991,” ACM President Vicki Hanson said in a statement. “Although this doesn’t seem that long ago, it is hard to imagine the world before Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention.”

That invention not only transformed the world in unimaginable ways but was also a technically and conceptually challenging feat, ACM noted. Berners-Lee invented the unique system for locating data on the web (such as the now-ubiquitous URLs that help users navigate to a specific page). He also created early versions of web browsers and envisioned the way all of these conceptual pieces would fit together, Hanson said. [Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web]

Practical problem, radical solution

Berners-Lee began his work on the invention of the World Wide Web in response to a practical problem: Back  in 1989, physicists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), home of the largest atom smasher in the world, were having trouble sharing their data. Scientists were using a decade-old system called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), but they couldn’t share many types of data in that way. To get around the problem, Berners-Lee invented a whole new system, which included ways to identify any unique object on the web (a uniform resource identifier), a way to send or exchange data (a hypertext transfer protocol, or HTTP), a web browser and hypertext markup language (HTML), which allows a web browser to display a web page complete with links and other web formatting.

The first website (http://info.cern.ch) went live on Aug. 6, 1991. Berners-Lee also pioneered the concept of making the web free and open, by releasing software that anyone could change or update — the seeds of open-source software. Since the humble beginnings of the web, the number of websites has grown to over 1 billion, according to the ACM.

Berners-Lee earned a physics degree from the University of Oxford in 1976 and spent some of his time there using a soldering iron to build a homemade computer, according to a biography from the World Wide Web Consortium, where he is director. He worked at a series of companies before winding up at CERN and, in 1994, founded the World Wide Web Consortium, which is dedicated to making common guidelines and standards for all things internet-related.

Free and fair internet

For most of his life, Berners-Lee has worked to make information on the web open for everyone to use, and he has continued to be vocal about the evolution of the internet. In 2014, he told Der Spiegel magazine that the amazing collaborative spirit behind the web’s invention can’t be taken for granted. [The 11 Most Beautiful Mathematical Equations]

“All that collaboration and working together is, to a certain extent, under threat, because the web has become so powerful, because it has become such an important technology for everyday life and almost everything we do,” Berners-Lee said. Therefore, there is a strong tendency for governments, big organizations and companies to try to control it.   

In an op-ed for The Guardian published March 11, Berners-Lee wrote that the web now faces three existential  threats: Users no longer control their own web-browsing data, misinformation spreads like a virus online, and online political advertising is not transparent.

“These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear,” Berners-Lee wrote.

Some ideas he proposed in the editorial include personal “data pods” to protect user information from company control, and better business models, such as subscriptions and micropayments to support a website, rather than advertising.

“We must fight against government overreach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary,” Berners-Lee wrote. “We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is ‘true’ or not.”

Originally published on Live Science.

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