When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web back in 1989, he was clear in his ambition for it to be an open, free and ubiquitous platform for all. However, as the Web approaches almost 50% of the world’s population as users, Berners-Lee is not convinced that these principles are being upheld or that his original ideals for the Web are being protected.
You only have to look at the control that certain digital companies exert over the Web and the influence that data manipulation has had on democracies to understand why...
As such, Berners-Lee, with backing from industry, politicians and governments, has this week launched a new Contract for the Web. The contract aims to ensure that the Web continues to “serve humanity” and calls on governments, citizens and companies to agree to a number of principles and commitments.
Berners-Lee announced the #FortheWeb campaign during his keynote at Web Summit in Lisbon this week, where he said:
“Looking back, we thought if we could keep the web free and open, what could go wrong? Well, looking back, what could go wrong? Duh. We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated. So yeah, there are lots of issues with the Web.”
He explained that the world is at a point where almost half the population is online. However, as the Web increases in power, this is having the unintended consequence of increasing the digital divide, Berners-Lee argued. He said that “we have an obligation to look after both parts of the world”.
“We need to make sure that the people that are connected to the Web, that the Web allows them to produce the Web that they want, the world that they want. And to fix the issues we have with the existing Web. At the same time we have an obligation to help the others get online.”
It’s worth noting that alongside being a professor at MIT in recent years, Berners-Lee has continued to establish organisations that aim to preserve the fundamental principles of the World Wide Web. For example, the W3 Consortium is the governing body of the World Wide Web, alongside the Web Foundation and the Open Data Institute, which he argues are “vital components for protecting what has been - and what will come”.
In addition, Berners-Lee has also recently established a small startup called Inrupt, which will promote uptake of an open-source project called Solid - both of which allow users to take control of their own data. Think of it as a canonical source of data for your online data, which can then be easily shared with businesses or governments, whilst always maintaining control.
However, despite these efforts, Berbers-Lee insists that the world needs a “new Contract for the Web, with clear and tough responsibilities for those who have the power to make it better”.
During his keynote, Berners-Lee said:
“Why a contract? Why not a manifesto? A contract is about different parties coming together from different angles.
“The idea is that everyone is responsible going forward for trying to make the Web a better place, in different ways.”
The contract itself is broken into different commitments for either governments, companies or citizens. They are as follows:
- Ensure everyone can connect to the internet
- Keep all of the internet available, all of the time
- Respect people’s fundamental right to privacy
- Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone
- Respect consumers’ privacy and personal data
- Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst
- Be creators and collaborators on the web
- Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity
- Fight for the web
The contract states that the “challenges facing the web today are daunting and affect us in all our lives, not just when we are online...but if we work together and each of us takes responsibility for our actions,w e can protect a web that rely is for everyone”.
The contract has been backed by the likes of Google, Facebook, Sir Richard Branson, Gordon Brown, Nesta, and The IO Foundation.
Not an easy task - fixing the wrongs of a living beast like the World Wide Web. But if anyone has a chance, it’s Tim Berners-Lee. Getting all parties together to agree on a contract to live and work by - if it can become embedded as the guiding foundation for everything - may go some way to correcting the direction of the Web. However, as we know, commercial and political interests are strong. How binding this contract will be remains to be seen...