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HD China: Emergence of the Web

March 16, 2011

EMERGENCE OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB – A [very] Brief Overview

(note: this is part of a series. To read earlier versions, or get some background, please see: what is HD China?intro)

When analyzing the relationship between international law and the way individuals interact and access information an interesting theme develops. It is not difficult to imagine it as one interconnected global web of bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaties, conventions, customary norms, declarations and other instruments of cross-border legal agreements.  Similarly, the world-wide-web is just that—a fragmented, decentralized, complex, and interconnected network.  Access to this digital universe, in many parts of the developed world, is nearly instantaneous.  At the forefront of this frontier it is all right there in the palm of our hands, on smart-phones and other products of on-demand networked-technology.

Harlold Koh, the current legal advisor for the Department of State provided a distinctive operational definition of transnational law expressed appropriately in computer-age terminology:  “One may think of transnational law as law that has been downloaded from international to domestic law” and “some rules of transnational law have been uploaded” from domestic law and downloaded to then become part of international law. [i]

The volume of information we have at our disposal in the 21st century is remarkably different than the decades before.  The expansion of the world-wide-web as a result of unyielding technological innovation and economies of scale means greater access to people everywhere.

Contemporary linguistic norms seem to be that we identify the terms “Internet” and “World Wide Web” interchangeably.  Historically, this wasn’t the case.  Tim Berner-Lee, the British computer scientist who is often regarded as the creator of the world-wide-web defined the Internet as “a network of networks…basically made from computers and cables…used to send around little ‘packets’ of information…anywhere in the world, normally in well under a second.” Telephone lines and modems would establish physical connections between the worlds “connected” computers.  Electronic mail (email) is the simplest example of a product of resulting from this phenomenon, and one that “was around long before the global hypertext system” or World Wide Web. [ii]

Accordingly, this new form of connectivity profoundly changed the way data would be transmitted.  For instance, changes in the infrastructure to carry digitized packets of information over longer distances, faster and in larger quantities emerged [iii].

“The internet stock boom sparked a huge overinvestment in fiber-optic cable companies, which then laid massive amounts of fiber-optic cable on land and under the oceans, which dramatically drove down the cost of making a phone call or transmitting data anywhere in the world.  The first commercial installation of a fiber optic system was in 1977, after which fiber slowly began to replace copper telephone wires.”

In the space of just a few years during the 1990s the Internet emerged “as a tool of low-cost global connectivity.”  But the “first big breakthrough to bring the Internet alive as a tool of connectivity and collaboration” for the common-user, not just scientists and other tech-savvy groups was the World Wide Web.

Berner-Lee explained some of the distinguishing characteristics.  “The Web is an abstract (imaginary) space of information.  On the Net, you find computers—on the Web, you find documents, sounds, videos…information.  The Web exists because of programs that communicate between computers on the Net.  The Web could not be without the Net.  The Web made the Net useful because people are really interested in information (not to mention knowledge and wisdom) and don’t really want to have to know about computers and cables.” [iv]

As recently as June 2010 it was estimated that in our world of 6.8 billion people, 1.9 billion individuals connected to the World Wide Web. In 2000, world Internet usage was roughly 360 million people, which means over 440% growth over 10 years.  This staggering growth is not evenly distributed to all continents and parts of the globe.  For example, Internet usage in Africa is only 5% of the total world usage.  And within Africa only 10% of its total population has access to the web, compared to North America whose Internet penetration rate is over 75%. [v] This empirical data harks back to the countless debates of NWICO and its overarching theme of a north-south polarization.  On its face, these numbers suggests the existence of a “digital divide”, where developing nations lack basic infrastructure and means to access information.

These local realities of global concern are only a tiny sample of which there is no simple solution. Nothing in recent history has penetrated the perception of living in an interconnected globe more than the Internet and by its very nature this network of information touches virtually every dimension of our civilized world, from national security concerns to sharing family photo albums.  Freedom to access and interact with this flow of information has also generated substantial interdisciplinary discourse.   From basic human rights claims such as freedom of expression and right to information, to delicate policy considerations for claims of national security and public order.


[i] Harold Koh, Is There a “New” New Haven School of International Law?, 32 Yale J. Int’l L. 559 (2007)

[ii] Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, New York (2005)

[iii] id.

[iv] id.

[v] Internet World Statistics, Section on World Internet Usage and Population Statistics, 2000-2010, available at http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

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