On Monday, November 5, Tim Berners-Lee unveiled a document called “The Case for the Web” which outlines principles to protect and enhance the web’s future, as well as craft a collective contract for May 2019.
He revealed these plans for a contract at the Web Summit in Lisbon, together with his organization, the Web Foundation.
Signers to join the contract thus far include Facebook, Google, the French Government, Sir Richard Branson, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and more than fifty other organizations and key individuals. Amazon has reportedly not yet joined.
The contract is expected to be finalized in May 2019, the year when the web celebrates its 30th birthday, and when half of the world’s population is expected to be online.
When asked which particular groups he’s targeting to join, Berners-Lee pronounced, “Everybody, everybody.” The hope is that any and all companies, individuals, and governments will participate in crafting this contract. You can show your support here, and also participate on Twitter with #ForTheWeb.
Why do we need a case for the web?
The document begins by chronicling a bit of web history: how we’ve grown from just one website in 1990 to nearly two billion websites at the end of 2018 — or one website for every four people in the world.
Much of that explosive growth has brought life-saving change: uncovering corruption, overthrowing dictators, providing emergency relief from natural disasters, sourcing truth, giving countless people access to education, advancing innovation, creating millions of jobs.
But much of that growth has also carried disastrous consequences: election interference, cyber bullying, misinformation, discrimination, spread of hate speech and terrorism, data breaches and privacy scandals.
For better and for worse, the web has “changed lives and altered the course of history. . . It has changed the way we communicate with each other, opening up new worlds and new ways of thinking, even if we haven’t left home.”
The document then discusses how “the web we know and love is under attack.”
Right now it’s not for everyone — over half the people in the world aren’t online, and most of them are marginalized populations (specifically those from low-income countries and women).
And right now, the vast majority of internet power is concentrated in the hands of a few giant companies:
“More than 90% of online searches go through Google, giving the company tremendous power over what people see when searching online.2 More than half of cloud services run on Amazon. Facebook boasts over 2.2 billion active monthly users, and users of Facebook-owned WhatsApp top 1.5 billion. The responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of these companies and others like them could hardly be greater.”
What is to be done, then? That’s exactly what Berners-Lee and the Web Foundation are trying to accomplish here: “to establish the open web as a public good and a basic right.”
What are the 3 key focus areas of “The Case for the Web”?
The Case for the Web outlines three main efforts the contract hopes to further.
Accessible and affordable for everyone
- Accelerate the rate at which people are coming online
- Drive down the cost of internet access so that people can afford to connect
- Focus on connecting women
Safe and welcoming for everyone
- Protect personal data online
- Ensure automated decision-making is fair and unbiased
- Combat online bullying, harassment and abuse
- Ensure governments respect people’s rights online
Empowering for everyone
- Work toward a diverse, multilingual web
- Treat all online traffic equally
- Put the power back in the hands of the people
What are the core principles?
The core principles thus far include mandates for each governments, companies, and citizens.
- Ensure everyone can connect to the internet — so that anyone, no matter who they are or where they live, can participate actively online.
- Keep all of the internet available, all of the time — so that no one is denied their right to full internet access.
- Respect people’s fundamental right to privacy — so everyone can use the internet freely, safely and without fear.
- Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone — so that no one is excluded from using and shaping the web.
- Respect consumers’ privacy and personal data — so people are in control of their lives online.
- Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst — so the web really is a public good that puts people first.
- Be creators and collaborators on the web — so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.
- Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity — so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.
- Fight for the web — so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.
How feasible are these?
At a glance, many of these principles seem far-fetched and idealistic, maybe even naive. We don’t have to be the first to remind you of the data breaches, scandals, and privacy concerns that have wrecked havoc on 2018.
When asked about why people would join his effort, Berners-Lee told CNET, “We’re not expecting anyone to do it out of altruism. We’re expecting them to do it out of collaboration.”
Some of the core principles are obviously easier than others — for citizens at least, many of us are already committed to being creators and collaborators, but many of us find it hard to protect an environment where everyone feels safe and welcome online.
Many companies are already making efforts to respect privacy and personal data (thank you, GDPR), and many are at least trying to develop technologies that support the best in humanity (TBD on how that’s going, i.e. social media rank with hate speech).
Particular governments will certainly have the biggest strides to make in ensuring the internet is available, working, and private to all.
As far as feasibility, many of these goals — while lofty — are at least attainable in some hoped-for future.
If nothing else, now certainly feels like the time when people will be most willing to hop on board to at least try. The climate of late (looking at you, Google Walkout) points to a renewed sense of people starting to take matters of human rights and wellbeing into their own hands, instead of waiting on those with all the power to do it for them.
It doesn’t hurt that the person calling for change is the inventor of the web himself — most people would be hard-pressed to call any more of his ideas impossible.
To realize these changes? He’s calling on “everybody” to help.
Everybody includes you, too
On the nearly sixty groups and individuals already signed up, Berners-Lee commented on the “richness” of the list — that we want everyone from large companies to groups of women in developing countries. “If we’re going to decide on the way we all together work towards having a web that has the right values,” he said, “we don’t want it to be a white guy’s contract, we want it to be a contract with everybody.”
It seems he really is interested in not just the Googles and Facebooks of the world, but the smaller actors too — anyone who uses the internet.
Or as he put it in 2014,
“If we spend a certain amount of time using the internet we have to spend a little proportion of that time defending it, worrying about it, looking out for it… Do me a favor, fight for it for me.”
You can show your support here, and also participate on Twitter with #ForTheWeb.
The full report, “The Case for the Web,” can be read here.