Can the Contract For The Web make the internet great again?

contract for the web
Image credit: domoyega

ITEM: A year ago, the inventor of the World Wide Web declared that the web was broken. This week, he launched his ambitious plan to fix it – in the form of a contract. On the bright side, it’s enforceable. On the downside, it’s only enforceable if you actually sign it.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been complaining for some time now that the web is fast moving away from his original vision of the web as a “force for good”. The “free and open” internet has morphed into a for-profit oligopoly dominated by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon, while user data is bought and sold, people are chased off the web by trolls, hate groups and extremists, and fake news has been weaponized.

Around this time last year, Berners-Lee proposed the creation of a new “Contract For The Web” that aims to change course and transform the web into the “force for good” it was intended to be. His non-profit organization, the World Wide Web Foundation, has been hammering out the structure and principles of the cContract in collaboration with over 80 signatories. The first draft text was unveiled in July.

This week, the Web Foundation officially launched it with 150 signatories.

The Contract comprises nine key principles to be upheld by three categories of stakeholders: governments, private companies and users. That’s key because the contract is designed for collaboration – indeed, the Contract’s effectiveness depends on a collaborative effort to change the web. Significantly, the list of signatories includes heavy hitters like Google, Facebook (both of which have been onboard since work on the contract began), Twitter, Microsoft, GitHub and Telefonica, to name a few.

In essence, the Contract requires governments to strive to get everyone connected at all times, and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights. Companies are also required to protect privacy and personal data, as well as enable affordable connectivity to everyone and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”.

Individual users are also called to sign up, in which case they would agree to be creators and collaborators, build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, and generally take action to defend the web from anyone acting in opposition to the nine principles.

That said, the Contract isn’t a quick fix but a starting point and a template for making the web something that truly benefits everyone, “free from fear of abuse, privacy violations and disinformation.”

Consequently, according to the official Contract web site, the next step is for all signatories to work together to “develop specific, evidence-based solutions to the problems facing the web.”

Accountability is key

More to the point, the Web Foundation aims to ”ensure measurement and accountability”. Put simply, signatories can’t just sign it to slap their logo on the home page – they have to make actual commitments to support, promote and uphold the contract’s objectives.

That’s crucial because – like any other contract, the Contract For The Web is pointless if it’s not enforceable.

However, the details of how accountability will be policed and enforced – not to mention the penalty for non-compliance – haven’t yet been worked out. However, part of the plan is to rely heavily on governments and regulators to adopt its principles into their internet regulations. According to the FAQ, the reasoning is that the contract itself is grounded in “existing human rights law and international frameworks that have been endorsed by governments around the world.”

Thus: “We will continue to work to embed the Contract principles in other international fora like the UN, and in national laws and regulations.”

Critical mass

Sounds like a plan. But will it work?

Well, apart from the fact that it would require the end of the current business model of “surveillance capitalism” and intentionally addictive content design currently in play – a tall order in itself –a significant challenge is the fact that lots of governments don’t want an open and free internet that’s available 24/7. They want a tightly controlled internet that comes with a kill switch when warranted.

Then you have government agencies engaged in various degrees of secret cyber espionage, infrastructure hacking and disinformation campaigns, among other things.

Put simply, whoever does not sign the Contract is not bound by it, and there are plenty of governments who will avoid signing for those reasons. Or they may sign and simply blow off attempts to force them to abide by the principles.

To its credit, the Web Foundation admits as much in the Contract FAQ:

There will be some global actors who will never back the Contract’s principles, just as they flout other global agreements, but we know we will have succeeded when those governments and companies are true outliers.

In other words, as we’ve written here before, the Contract has to achieve a critical mass of participation from the public and private sector to work. Once enough entities sign on, they can pressure others to do likewise. For example, if we accept the current notion that the digital era is going to rely heavily on partnerships, signatories with enough clout could require potential business partners to sign on as a prerequisite for doing business.

But again, accountability and enforcement is the real key. Without it, precious little will change. Whatever the signatories come up with, it had better be good.

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