Code that formed basis of worldwide web for sale as non-fungible token

Proceeds of sale by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, to go to charity

Inventions are most salient with the historical changes they cause, but ranking them is more art than science. One could argue that the printing press, which allowed literacy to evolve and spread, with thinkers sharing more ideas, was the greatest innovation of all time. But then where would we be without vaccines, cameras and the tick-tock of the humble clock?

Until June 30th, Sotheby’s will auction 9,555 lines of computer code that forms the basis of the World Wide Web, which many would argue is one of the greatest inventions of all time. It was written by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee between 1990 and 1991, and is being sold as a non-fungible token (NFT) – which is similar to a contract that certifies the code’s authenticity and right of ownership. The sale, titled This Changed Everything, also includes a digital poster with Berners-Lee’s signature and a letter from the scientist reflecting his process of creating the code.

Berners-Lee, the son of two pioneering scientists who worked on the first commercially built computer, constructed a computer using a soldering iron and an old television set sourced from a repair shop while at university in Queen's College, Oxford. After numerous jobs at various companies working as a programmer, he got a consulting position at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research near Geneva, where he worked on a programme to assist nuclear scientists to share data over the internet. He named this system Enquire Within Upon Everything, based on a Victorian handbook he had read as a child – a bit like Mrs Beeton's Guide to Household Management. This became the basis for his source code that would, a decade later, become the World Wide Web, though at the time his superiors at Cern judged it "vague but exciting".

He released this code for free, in a move that sparked a global wave of collaboration, innovation and creativity never seen before. While the internet connected computers, the web connected the world in a simple way, allowing everyone – not just computer scientists – to share information and communicate through networking sites, blogs and video sharing.


An animated version of the code, in the form of a 30-minute video, is also included and is interesting to watch, as it contains, along with technical jargon, entries such as “Take a backup before we do anything silly”, and the last three lines, “Run; Free; Exit”, which started the platform that now connects half the world’s population of more than 7½ billion people.

Dark web

In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Berners-Lee said that one of his earliest memories was a conversation with his parents about how computers would one day function like the human brain, and a line in his code contains wording: "Algorithm found by trial and error." Thirty years after this was written, we know that tech giant Facebook exposed data on more than 80 million users to the political research firm Cambridge Analytica, to target American voters, which helped to elect Donald Trump, by the use of computer algorithms on the web.

In the same interview Berners-Lee also said he was “devastated” by how his creation has become distorted, and he has spent most of his life trying to guard it. Though his intention was to provide the world with a free, open democratic platform, his invention revealed what can happen when such technology ends up in the wrong hands.

The dark or deep web is where software – such as Freenet, developed by Dundalk native Ian Clarke – allows users complete anonymity to share information. But this censorship-free space is a haven for sharing viruses – like the one that toppled the HSE system in the past few weeks – and criminals selling everything from drugs and hitmen to child pornography.

“We demonstrated that the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done,” Berners-Lee told Vanity Fair. Dismayed with the abuse of his system – and in reaction to the news that Facebook had conducted psychological experiments on 700,000 users in secret – the father of the web established the Solid project, which aims to repair the platform and give individual users full control of their usage and data.

Information reported last year in the Guardian newspaper stated that a fresh Cambridge Analytica leak “shows global manipulation is out of control”, with 100,000 documents indicating how work in 68 countries will “lay bare manipulation of voters on an industrial scale”.

Berners-Lee has a right to feel devastated, perhaps in a similar way to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel: how a scientific creation – if left without social responsibility and in isolation – can morph into quite a monster. Bidding starts at $1,000, but you can be sure this will be one of the most coveted NFTs of all time, and proceeds of the sale will go to charities associated with the Berners-Lee family.