Can Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract save the Web from itself?

tim berners-lee contract web
Tim Berners-Lee, January 2012. Image credit: drserg /

ITEM: At the Web Summit in Lisbon, Tim Berners-Lee revealed his plan to create a “Contract for the Web” under which all signatories – which would include governments, companies and individuals – would pledge to uphold the principles of a free and open internet.

That doesn’t mean just net neutrality, although that’s part of it, reports The Guardian:

Under the principles laid out in the document, which Berners-Lee calls a “Magna Carta for the web”, governments must ensure that its citizens have access to all of the internet, all of the time, and that their privacy is respected so they can be online “freely, safely and without fear.”

Meanwhile, companies commit to making the internet affordable and accessible to all; respecting consumer privacy and personal data; and developing technologies that ensure the web is “a public good that puts people first”.

In that sense, Berners-Lee is proposing something like a Web reboot that aims to correct all the things that have gone wrong with the web in terms of its idealistic origins. Those of us of a certain age may remember all the way back in the late 80s and early 90s, when the internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular were envisioned as a liberator of communications, where the top-down gatekeeper model of print media and TV were replaced by a platform where everyone could have a voice and be empowered.

Indeed, a key reason social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have avoided making judgement calls on content was the embedded Silicon Valley ideology that everyone – even cranks, conspiracy theorists and racists – had the right to free speech, and that the marketplace of ideas would sort the good from the bad.

Of course, it hasn’t worked out that way, which is one of several reasons why Facebook, Twitter and Google are in such trouble now. They are essentially private digital surveillance companies that become so dominant a presence on the web – and are so badly policed in terms of content management, abuse and manipulation – that the web is no longer a democratic speech equalizer (if it ever really was).

The Contract is a response to the fact that the status quo of trollbots, fake news and data leaks is unsustainable. Something has to change – not just the business models, data harvesting policies and privacy protections, but the fundamental philosophy underpinning the digital infrastructure we’re creating.

That right there is the biggest challenge to the Contract for the Web, aside from the question of how you would even go about enforcing such a thing – it’s hard to get people to agree to one philosophy on anything, let alone how the web should evolve.

Which is not to say that Berners-Lee is wrong, or that the Contract for the Web is a bad idea. You have to start somewhere, and this might be a good way to get the conversation started on what we ultimately want the digital economy to be and the ethical values it should reflect.

And it’s worth mentioning the contract isn’t actually completed yet – the full version is scheduled to be implemented in May 2019, by which time it will be far more than a short list of vaguely worded principles – and hopefully will explain how it will enforce the terms of the contract.

But it seems to me that it could only work if you got a critical mass of stakeholders to sign it and agree to it. And we know that there are plenty of people, companies and governments who will refuse to sign for ideological, political or business reasons – some bad actors may even sign it just so they can subvert it from the inside.

That’s no reason not to try, and I’m withholding judgement until the full contract is ready. But I’m also expecting a lot of resistance to it – and a lot of conspiracy theories.

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