Thirty years ago this week, Tim Berners-Lee launched the first webpage on the Internet, sparking a wave of excitement – and debate – about the potential of the world’s largest networked information system for access to education, opportunity, discovery and innovation.
It would be a few more years before I officially started my cybersecurity career. In the early days of the internet, I was young and idealistic, full of hope and promise, when technology put the world at our feet. What began as a network for academics became mainstream in the years that followed. In 1995 just under 40 million people accessed the internet every day (mostly tech geeks like me) and while that may seem trivial today, few trends can keep up with the growth of the internet or the changes it has brought to our world.
1995 was an exciting year for me too: Microsoft introduced Windows 95 and I co-authored the first antivirus for this new platform. And when I came out of the revolution from communism to democracy in the Czech Republic, I was enthusiastic about freedom in all forms, including what we then considered to be “huge” cyberspace. But it was also the first year we saw what was at stake for individuals who didn’t understand what they were getting into when they went online.
WWW? Or wild wild west?
As people began to push the boundaries of what was possible on the internet, we realized that it wasn’t going to be the utopia we had in mind. For all its advantages and potential, evil actors could also use its power to wreak havoc in the form of malicious software and network breaches.
But the world’s first viruses were harmless compared to what we see today. “Script kiddies” and self-proclaimed geeks learned to use weaknesses in networks and PCs to wreak havoc. Famous, the ILOVEYOU virus sent messages to your contacts in which you confess your love and spread chaos.
Over the years, as Internet usage continued to grow, so did the number of bad guys trying to take advantage of it. By the year 2000 (also known as 2000), over 350 million people were using the Internet every day. Reports of online exploitation continued to increase. The web was the wild wild west. Spam, worms, banking Trojans and special threats aimed at gaining access to networks and databases were ubiquitous. Malware became more common and it was almost impossible to get online without some kind of protection. The world needed a solution and in that moment an industry was born. And I’m happy to say I was there when it happened!
I demonstrated Avast Antivirus from Alwil in 2001. In 2010 we would rename the company Avast.
But it wasn’t until e-commerce began to flourish and online banking made its entrance that the alarm bells finally rang for many – the internet could be a dangerous place. We sold our antivirus to computer enthusiasts around the world, but we were just preaching to the choir – or in our case, the type of person who immediately thinks about safety or risk in almost any situation.
At Avast, we made two important decisions at the same time. First, we affirmed that our ethos is to keep everyone safe on the internet, which led us to our second decision to make our product accessible and available for free. That’s what we worked for Everyone Had access to the best protection for a safer online experience. Twenty years later, we’re protecting hundreds of millions of people around the world and stopping more than a billion threats every month.
Internet access is not optional
Today we’re on the other side of a divide we once imagined – and a global pandemic punctuated the first thirty years of the internet. We all helped our grandparents and parents cross the literal digital divide when we introduced them to the world of live internet video, social media, and personal services. The internet has been our lifeline, but for many it has unexpected barriers: more data breaches and leaks, sophisticated social engineering attacks, less security, and more global power – including governments and corporate giants – behind our data and identities.
In today’s world, the internet is no longer optional. Take the state of California, for example, where you will be fined your state income taxes for sending a check. You are forced to pay online or risk higher taxes. In Germany, bank customers have to pay a fee to transfer money from the bank counter – online, however, this is free. Customer service, many payment options, and even disabled services are only available online.
Like it or not, society has made the internet a duty. If you used to be a vulnerable person, now you are even more.
People are left behind
There is no doubt that we have made a lot of progress on the internet. And for many, it’s a liberating experience, giving them access to data and democratized information like never before. Covid-19 has also shown how limited access to data is and how many barriers still exist today.
That’s why, as a company, we’ve been committed to protecting people around the world for decades beyond the dawn of the Internet (and Avast). Today more than ever, the internet offers an opportunity for the weak, but only if they can get online and really participate. I believe we need to look ahead to determine what we can do to create a truly inclusive internet.
We can still unlock the potential of the internet for everyone
So far we have failed. First of all, there are still far too many people who cannot experience all that the web has to offer due to a lack of hardware or a limited location. But even without these physical limitations, there is a bigger, more subtle problem. Consumers today basically only have two options: a censored web that prevents them from accessing certain information and where they pay with their privacy, or no web at all. Both options are dangerous.
As a community, we have to accept that digital rights are fundamental human rights. The same inherent injustice in society that separates the poor and the poor also affects digital citizenship. We have to find a way to overcome this barrier in order to really create a level playing field. In fact, a digital divide with limited access to information and opportunity has far more far-reaching consequences than we can ever imagine.
It is also vital that we speak up. We all know that digital inequality exists, but few of us have the power to debate it. Together, let’s tell the truth about this digital divide and reveal it once and for all for what it is: modern oppression.
That’s why I’m so proud that Avast has gone way beyond being “just” a free antivirus provider. Through our innovative products such as AntiTrack and Breachguard, which enable people to manage the privacy of their online data. But it doesn’t end with our products. We work with organizations like that Coalition Against Stalkerwarethat supports people whose partners have abused technology to control and abuse it. We also launched Be Safe Online, a program that taught digital citizenship to more than fifty thousand middle school students. And recently, we created the new Avast Foundation with the goal of developing programs that promote digital freedom for everyone, regardless of budget or geographic location.
As protectors of the Internet, we need to dismantle censorship, expand access and establish digital freedom as a fundamental human right. We not only owe that to ourselves, but also to the billions of people around the world who will one day come to us online. Let’s work together to make sure the next era of the web is more open and fairer to all.