Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has announced a “Contract for the Web” — aimed at saving the future of his invention, which is now almost an essential condition for human existence. The Web is at a tipping point, Berners-Lee wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, and needs radical intervention from all stakeholders — governments, companies, civil society groups, as well as individual users.
What is the Contract for the Web?
Berners-Lee announced plans for this “Contract” nearly a year ago, and the World Wide Web Foundation, a non-profit he has founded, worked on it. The idea is to create a global plan of action for all stakeholders to together commit to building a “better” Web. The Contract consists of nine principles — three each for governments, private companies, and individuals and civil society to endorse — with 76 clauses each.
Emily Sharpe, Director of Policy at the World Wide Web Foundation, said the Contract was not meant to be “simply aspirational”, or just a “declaration”. “It’s actually meant to be implemented, and it’s meant to be a plan of action. We’re hoping, for example, that governments who are looking to regulate in the digital era, can use the contract as a roadmap to lay out their policies and laws going forward. And companies to do the same when they’re developing their products and services for the world,” she told The Indian Express over the phone from London.
And who has created this Contract?
Representatives from over 80 organisations, including governments, companies, civil society activists, and academics. The goal was to create a standard policy for a Web that benefits all. The nine principles emerged after a series of discussions over almost a year.
Participants included the governments of France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Ghana; tech majors Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, NordVPN, Reddit, Github, and DuckDuckGo. The Contract allows individuals to endorse it on the official website.
What are the principles in the Contract?
* Governments will “Ensure everyone can connect to the Internet”, “Keep all of the Internet available, all of the time”, and “Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights”.
* Companies will “Make the Internet affordable and accessible to everyone”, “Respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust”, and “Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”.
* Citizens will “Be creators and collaborators on the Web”, “Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity”, and “Fight for the Web” so that it “remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future”.
How will the Contract be implemented?
The principles are lofty, and implementation will not be easy. Sharpe said companies that do not implement the Contract would be delisted from it — which may not be the strongest deterrent. However, she pointed out that companies had themselves reached out to be active participants in the Contract.
“This was an opportunity for them to have conversations with governments and civil society instead of shouting at each other. It was an opportunity for dialogue. So they’re going back to their engineers and saying, ‘We’ve committed to all these other stakeholders that we’re going to fight hate speech, that we’re going to respect privacy.’ We hope they will actually do that now,” Sharpe said.
Even so, the ‘Contract for the Web’ is not a legal document, or a United Nations document — though the organisation is in talks with the UN. It cannot currently bend governments or companies — even those that are on board — to its will.
“We have to agree as a global community, what are the right standards. And now that we have that agreement, hopefully, we will see governments who are more willing to act in line with human rights standards, that they will abide by the contract clauses,” Sharpe said.
Citizen action is an important part of the Contract, and the organisation hopes citizens would hold governments and companies accountable for violations of its terms.
Contract is ready, what happens now?
The idea, Sharpe said, is to build “concrete solutions that support the goals that were set out in the Contract”. A clause for companies, for example, calls on them to invest in research to ensure they’re not designing services that manipulate people.
“Currently there’s no real accepted standard of best practices for even designing user interfaces, to make sure that people actually understand what they’re consenting to, what information is being collected. That’s still work that needs to be done,” she said.
The World Wide Web Foundation says it will work with all stakeholders to build some of these standards, which could help the Web stick to the principles of the Contract. It will measure the progress of the Contract’s endorsers, and work with regulators around the world to ensure that companies comply with national laws that support the Contract’s goals. The organisation also hopes to persuade more governments across the world to come on board the Contract.