A letter from our CEO
Marking two years since the start of the pandemic, W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe reflects on how the web became the ultimate tool of resilience for the world.
The Web as the ultimate tool of resilience for the world
It’s hard to draw a thread between Wordle, vaccine appointments, and the trillions of dollars exchanging hands each year via e-commerce. But there’s not just a thread, there’s a web.
The World Wide Web
Last week marked two years since a COVID-19-imposed lockdown manifestly changed our lives in most of the world. It not only brought the magnitude of the pandemic’s threat into clearer focus, but offered a forecast of the ensuing challenges society would navigate. It was a period of fear and uncertainty, as we pivoted to life at home and did our best to adjust our roles as parents, teachers, students, workers, and caregivers within reality forced upon us.
Last week coincided with the birthday of the World Wide Web, invented by W3C’s founder and Director, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Within the new reality, the web became not just a convenience, it became our lifeline.
As we reflect on the past two years of altered life amid the pandemic, the importance of the web and all it enables has been on high display. These past two years have brought profound hardships – illness, death, isolation, layoffs. I shudder to think, however, what pandemic life would have looked like if it had transpired prior to the advent of the web.
It’s difficult to think of an industry that hasn’t been substantially aided by the web during the age of Covid. Video-conferencing service is a conspicuous example. Zoom, for one, saw a jump to more than 200 million daily meeting participants in March, 2020, up from approximately 10 million in December, 2019. The Web makes all that possible for workers across industries to interact if not perfectly, at least in a manner that allowed most to remain productive. Web access kept millions employed, no doubt preventing a full-on economic depression. Businesses quickly saw that success and progress could take place with a remote workforce, delivering a viable long-term option to reduce costs and contribute to better work-life balance. The web makes all that possible.
As we yearned for normalcy amid the pandemic, home entertainment is another web-enabled sector that saw dramatic gains in the Covid era. Streaming services made long days and nights of confinement more bearable, delivering content to our devices with video streaming services reaching 1.1 billion global subscribers in 2020. Netflix alone added 36 million subscribers.
The web connecting us
Perhaps the most crucial role the web played during the pandemic was allowing families and friends to remain connected. In June, 2020, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor and our Director, said that “the web has been the critical unifying force, enabling work, school, social activity and mutual support. Always intended as a platform for creativity and collaboration at a distance, it is great to see it also being used more than ever for compassion at a distance too.” Being able to see and communicate with loved ones brought comfort amidst the chaos, allowing us to share birthdays, holidays – even funerals – from the depths of isolation. Literally and figuratively, the web allowed us to endure.
The web has been essential in enabling remote learning; it has facilitated the delivery of everything from groceries to home décor; it has helped countless small businesses stay afloat; and it has allowed hundreds of millions of people to schedule Covid tests and vaccines.
Coincidentally, this week marks another anniversary– the invention of the web itself. It was this week in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee wrote a memo: “Information Management: A Proposal.” It did nothing less than invent the web. While 33rd anniversaries are typically not celebrated with fanfare, as we reflect on the last two years, I am in awe of what that memo enabled – how many lives it saved, how it enabled communication, and how it became all that Tim anticipated.
Shepherding the future of the web
Yet we must not take the web for granted. It can do more. It can be more. And it will take a collaborative effort to ensure the web becomes more accessible to people around the world, more secure, and can function as the engine to fuel growth in key parts of economy and society.
The cultural, economic, and societal shifts of the past two years underscore the importance of web-based technology and services. They have cast light on the need for universally accepted technical specifications, guidelines, and web standards. This means acknowledging that the web enables both the dissemination of vital information and that it creates channels to spread misinformation. It means recognizing that while the web is the ultimate accelerator of business and commerce, its ubiquity also facilitates significant misdeeds. All of this compels us to a sustained, heightened state of vigilance to ensure one of humanity’s greatest achievements does not fall victim to those who would misuse its enormous power for ill purpose.
A web for everyone
Finally, the past two years also has compounded the digital divide, which prevented too many people from accessing the capabilities of the web during the pandemic or otherwise. While some of us take the web for granted, an estimated 37 percent of the world’s population lacks web access. Of those, the UN estimates that 96 percent live in developing countries.
One of the W3C’s primary goals is to ensure the web and its basic functions be available to everyone on Earth, delivering on the promise delivered by Sir Tim Berners-Lee that the web is accessible, internationalized, secure, and works for all. As Tim has said in succinct terms: “This is for everyone.”