Gene Policinski — The Web is almost old enough to drink


Welcome to adulthood, World Wide Web.

You were born on Aug. 6, 1991, as an interconnected system that makes information accessible around the globe. That makes you 21.

Since I can’t buy you a drink, how about a First Amendment salute instead?

As it happens, you debuted as a publicly available and revolutionary communication service just a few months before the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the First Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, 1791. Thanks to you, the world – and the First Amendment’s five freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition – would never be viewed the same way again.

You even had a birth announcement that day, penned by your father, Tim Berners-Lee. It reads, in part: “The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow all links to be made to any information anywhere. … The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas … .”

Like most parents, it would appear that Berners-Lee already was planning your future.

There were your first baby steps and early friends: Mosaic, the first browser that helped us find information and that later took the name Netscape. New kids moved into the neighborhood, with names like CompuServe, Yahoo and America Online, and later Microsoft, Apple and Google.

More and more of us played with you in those early years – experimenting with your reach, discovering that we could turn up a zillion mentions of virtually any subject. And we could make ourselves heard, not just by those in earshot, but by the globe. It was fun. Few rules restrained us as we roamed your new world.

As you reached your teen years you fostered a new generation of communicators and a growing variety of users. Rebellious moments and new challenges arose as you matured.

The Web moved from being a toy to a tool – from a place for gamers, sports fans and early adopters to a widely used utility, a good place to get practical information, a new platform for self-expression. Companies found they could promote their wares and do business through you, thus forever altering the retail market.

There came the inevitable consequences of stepping out into the wider world. We were the targets of hackers, cheats and online predators. We suffered when you were infected with malicious viruses, spurious “facts” and hate-filled views. Adults began trying to set rules as a result. Congress enacted a kind of Internet curfew: the Communications Decency Act of 1996, its first attempt to regulate Web content, touted as a way to shield children from pornography.

But in 1997, in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-indecency provisions of the act, saying Congress had gone too far. About all that remains today is Section 230, which says Internet service operators are not legally liable for what others post.

Other memorable moments followed. Enter Wikipedia, that flawed but massive attempt to provide a self-correcting, self-sustaining, 21st century version of the venerable encyclopedia. YouTube now lets us broadcast to the world. There’s Facebook. We’ve learned to talk to each other in 140-character messages via Twitter.

Efforts continue to legislate away your rawer edges, from salacious images to the coarse, vulgar comments that have moved from scrawls on a real wall to posting on a virtual one.

But as with all of us entering adulthood, nobody really knows your potential, where you will end up or what your full impact will be. We do know you’ve matured from toy to tool to necessity. We spend much of our days looking at media through you. Social movements, elections and even revolutions rely on you to start and stay alive.

The nation’s Founders lived in a time when freedom of speech meant the right to say what you wanted to your neighbor, and perhaps also to people gathered on the village green. That freedom has moved from the village green to the village screen, with its enormous capacity to reach individuals, communities, nations, the world.

Those who ratified the First Amendment may not have been able to envision you, but they knew the value of what you make possible – freedom of speech and information, planet-wide and at our collective fingertips. They would value the way you allow us to track what our government is spending, what our officials are doing and how our society is changing.

I’m pretty sure they would join in helping to light the virtual candles. Happy birthday, Web.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: gpolicinski@fac.org.