Arab internet execs celebrate 25 years of the web

INFOGRAPHIC: Five regional experts say ‘happy birthday’ to the World Wide Web, amid ongoing concerns about online privacy

Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan - Al Arabiya News, Dubai
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From skateboarding dogs to the Arab Spring, the internet has touched our lives in multiple ways.

And after all those strange memes, spying scandals and booms and busts, it is easy to forget that the web traces back its history just 25 years.

Infographic: 25 Years of the World Wide Web

Infographic: 25 Years of the World Wide Web (Design by Farwa Rizwan/Al Arabiya News)
Infographic: 25 Years of the World Wide Web (Design by Farwa Rizwan/Al Arabiya News)

But the architecture of the World Wide Web was indeed drawn up a quarter-century ago today by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee earlier today called on a ‘bill of rights’ to be created to govern the internet, in the wake of revelations of government surveillance in the U.S. and beyond.

On the web’s birthday, Al Arabiya News spoke to five Middle East internet executives for their take on its impact in this region – and how controversies over security may play out in the future.

Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, Chief Innovation Officer at the Leo Burnett group in the Middle East and North Africa

Yousef Tuqan Tuqan
Yousef Tuqan Tuqan

Is the anniversary of the web important in the Arab world? I think it’s incredibly important. I don’t think there’s anything in memory – apart from the advent of religion – that’s been so transformative to this part of the world. As someone who’s grown up in the Middle East, with and without the web, I think one of the really important things it’s done is connected us to the rest of the world in a meaningful way. We are living at the same time and at the same speed as the rest of the world – we’re not behind any more in terms of technology, knowledge, or entertainment. We see it when the rest of the world sees it. And it’s really connected us in such a very profound way. You can’t overestimate the transformative effects of the internet in terms of democratizing information. In the Middle East in the 70s and 80s… the government had absolute control over everything we could access. The internet has just been this incredible explosion of information and access and knowledge that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s been an incredible force for positive change. But it still has a long way to go. One of the things is the ongoing censorship of the internet. Yet you can’t stop the internet – I don’t think you can stop people from seeing anything anymore.

Maha Abouelenein, head of communications for Google in the MENA region

Maha Abouelenein
Maha Abouelenein

The web is constantly evolving and has become an essential part of our lives today. On the web's 25th anniversary, we're excited to see the potential of a free, open and affordable web in giving people more choices, power and economic opportunity.

Majed al-Suwaidi, managing director of Dubai Internet City and Dubai Outsource Zone, which last year registered 181 new companies

Majed al-Suwaidi
Majed al-Suwaidi

The web is a game-changer in all industries. It disrupted everything – all the ways that you would have normally communicated. Everything is based on the web. Everything changed after that day [25 years ago]. There are many more positives than negatives. It opened up opportunities; it gives people a chance to see what’s happening around the world.

Omar Christidis, founder and chief executive officer of ArabNet, one of the best-known digital conferences and hubs in the Middle East

Omar Christidis
Omar Christidis

There’s absolutely no way, with the exponential rate of technology change, that you can predict what will happen 25 years from now. The rate of change is increasing exponentially: the adoption of the internet was much faster than the adoption of television. And so these changes that we’ve seen in the last 25 years are much bigger than the changes we’ve seen before them. Two to five years from now, we’re already talking about 3D printers printing our food and clothes.

Definitely one of the challenges of the next 25 years is going to be around privacy, information and security. That’s going to be a key issue for us moving forward. But if you weigh up the benefits and the costs of the internet, in my opinion the benefits far outweigh the costs.

We’re certainly seeing an emergence of a global culture that is driven by the internet. Things like Gangnam Style, these kind of viral things, would not have existed before the internet. And I think this kind of global consciousness that is emerging on the internet is really interesting. Today, the internet knows more about us as a human race and individuals than we know about ourselves collectively.

Is there a dark side? For sure, definitely. Beyond things like security and privacy, there are issues like illegal commerce. There are opportunities for a lot of underground and shady opportunities. But I don’t think that gets anywhere near the positive impact that the internet has had.

Samer Abdin, co-founder and CEO of Istikana, and Arabic video-on-demand service

Samer Abdin
Samer Abdin

The internet is like the printing press. For someone to argue that less accessibility to knowledge and less sharing of knowledge takes a pretty special kind of logic to make work. The internet is empowering. And for some elements, especially the more conservative ones, I think that’s threatening. There is already a little bit of tension between the level of openness of the internet and those elements. The internet is censored here; should it be, should it not be? That is the genuine question. And a right answer is that it’s very hard to achieve. There are such tensions in the West, but it’s exacerbated here. The reactions to completely open information, which I think the internet represents, are different.

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