HTTP turns 25, foundation of how we use the Internet

Over spring break, the 25th anniversary of an important milestone in the history of technology came and went. Back in March of 1989, a freelancer at CERN, the same place that now houses the Large Hadron Collider, wrote a paper proposing the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) as a way for computers to communicate with one another across long distances and share information. If this four letter acronym sounds familiar, this is because it’s the same one you may see at the front of your browser as you open Facebook, YouTube or one of millions of other websites. This freelancer, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Using a $6,500 computer with a 25 MHZ processor (about 50 to 100 times slower than your smartphone), later that year, Berners-Lee then put his theory on paper in practice. He was able to use his computer to run the first-ever web server, allowing other computers to remotely view documents he placed on the computer, no matter how far away they may be. This foundation of hosting and accessing documents remotely helped offer an extension to already-existing communication standards utilized by the United States Military and some limited commercial sources, setting the standard methods of communication for the Internet that we all use without even realizing it.

Today, the World Wide Web stands at the center of an ever-expanding form of two-way communication. Where radio and television decades prior advanced the world by presenting media far more easily than ever before, the World Wide Web has had a key difference from its ability to allow content to not only be read, but also created and shared with others. It’s mind boggling to think what this world would be today without the foundation that HTTP and the World Wide Web offer. This extends far beyond Facebook, Twitter and SayAnything; conveniences we hardly think about, from Internet banking to web-based e-mail, would be impossible without this foundation. While computers could communicate across great distances using other standards, the World Wide Web allowed it to be a technology that anyone—not just engineers—could utilize easily and quickly.

This helped HTTP become the worldwide standard of reading and uploading information. As it grew, however, so did the challenges. While the simplicity that anyone with a home computer can read and upload to the Internet is attractive, it continues to create an ever-complex space for discourse, sharing and interaction with malicious and good-natured intent alike. Today we have a host of ethical and legal concerns that have grown out of the Internet as we now know it. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression considers access to the Internet a human right since it facilitates free speech so well (Wired, “U.N. Report Declares Internet Access a Human Right,” 06.03.11). Meanwhile, the governments of France, the United Kingdom and the United States alike continue to propose legislation that would allow much stricter controls on the Internet through HTTP, allowing access to be denied over concerns of copyright infringement and individual access to things such as child pornography. The protocol is inherently open-ended, and as a result these debates over controlling the Internet and its content are unending.

If we could see 25 years into the future, would we still use HTTP as the foundation of how we communicate on the Internet? I sincerely think so. Today it is so ingrained with the languages and technologies we use that it’s hard to think how any future evolution of the Internet could happen without the help of HTTP. Take a moment to think of how different your life would be without that four letter acronym. I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would be.

 

—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.

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