Saving the World Wide WebBy
English physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 at CERN, site of the world’s largest particle physics lab. Today, he is the director of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), and at the end of November 2019, he launched an initiative to save the web from political manipulation, privacy violations, and other threats.
“I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater,” Berners-Lee told The Guardian. “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia.”
CONTRACT FOR THE WEB
Working for a year with representatives from more than 80 organizations, a group founded by Berners-Lee called the World Wide Web Foundation recently presented a global call for action. The 31-page manifesto named the “Contract for the Web” outlined the responsibilities of governments, companies, and citizens. On the first page, the authors make clear, “Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.” For a start, your department, your company, or you as an individual are asked to endorse the contract for the web at contractfortheweb.org. So far, more than 150 organizations have signed on, including Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and GitHub, along with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Those listed will remain on the roster for as long as they show evidence of implementing the principles and working on related problems of web survival.
There are three guiding principles for each of the sectors.
Governments will: Set goals for low-cost mobile access. Ninety percent will have broadband internet by 2030, and 70% of kids older than 10 years old will have information and communication technology (ICT) skills by 2025. Governments will also ensure that systematically excluded populations have effective paths toward meaningful internet access.
In order to keep all of the internet available, all of the time, governing bodies will set up legal and regulatory frameworks to minimize government-triggered internet interruptions. Removal of illegal content must be done in ways that are consistent with human rights law. And it’s government’s responsibility to establish and enforce comprehensive data protection and rights frameworks.
Companies will: Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone. This will be accomplished through improvements to an ever-increasing quality of service and close coordination with government and civil society. As with governments, companies must also respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data by giving people control over their privacy and rights.
The second principle for companies demands that they develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst. This aligns with the general philosophy of the web that defines it “as a public good that puts people first.” Companies must uphold and develop open web standards and promote interoperability, open-source technologies, open access, open knowledge, and open data practices and values.
Citizens will: Take an active role beyond that of users of the technology, becoming creators and collaborators on the web. That includes shaping the web through contributing content and improving systems. Practical applications include producing or translating content into local languages and advocating for standard technology that’s open and accessible to all.
The second principle for individuals is a little more altruistic and, for that reason, likely more difficult and long-term as a goal. We’re all asked to build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity for ourselves and for educating the next generation on these matters. Finally, we’re asked to fight for the web as active advocates, not just users who assume this will all continue to be free and unchanged into an unlimited future.
Initially, after designing the connections for his new hyperlinked network, Berners-Lee wrote the first browser for the web. Since then, he has worked continuously for 30 years to protect the integrity of the global network, which has become the source for most of our communications today. Internet rights activist Rebecca MacKinnon reminds us of the selfless quality of his dedication: “When Tim Berners-Lee invented the computer code that led to the creation of the World Wide Web in 1990, he did not try to patent or charge fees for the use of his technology.” It’s hard to imagine what that patent might be valued at had the young physicist taken a different route.