“We can’t force governments to do anything but as a starting point, we actually have to agree as a global community, what are the right standards.” Emily Sharpe, the Director of Policy for the World Wide Web Foundation, sums up the challenges and agenda for ‘A Contract for the web’ in one line.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, recently announced ‘A Contract for the web’, a set of nine principles with over 76 clauses aimed at fixing problems plaguing the Internet. His hope is that the ‘global plan of action’ will save his creation before it leads us to ‘digital dystopia’.
In simple terms, the ‘Contract for the Web’ lays out nine principles — three each for governments, companies and for individuals and civil society. Beneath these nine principles are 76 clauses, all aimed at tackling the myriad issues which threaten the web ranging from Internet access, affordability and privacy to safety and fighting disinformation.
“I had hoped that 30 years from its creation, we would be using the web foremost for the purpose of serving humanity… However, the reality is much more complex. Communities are being ripped apart as prejudice, hate and disinformation are peddled online. Scammers use the web to steal identities, stalkers use it to harass and intimidate their victims, and bad actors subvert democracy using clever digital tactics,” Berners-Lee wrote in an editorial for the New York Times as he announced the ‘Contract’.
‘Not just an aspirational document’
But this is not just an aspirational document or a simple declaration. The foundation will work towards making sure it is implemented, and they call it a plan of action.
“We’re hoping that, for example, 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 are developing their products and services for the world,” Sharpe told indianexpress.com in a telephone interaction.
The World Wide Web Foundation founded by Sir Tim-Berners-Lee worked closely on the contract. The contract already has the support of the governments in France, Ghana, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and a few others, though the organisation plans to go out and have the conversation with more governments now that the principles have been laid out. Sharpe said they would welcome a conversation with the Indian government as well.
The Contract for the Web saw companies, governments and civil society all come to the table to discuss their challenges. “This was a was an opportunity for them to come to the table and have conversations with governments, with civil society, instead of shouting at each other. It was an opportunity for dialogue,” explained Sharpe, who is based in London.
The hope is that because companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Reddit and others were involved in the process, they will work to internalise these principles now. But if the companies do not live up to the ideals, for now all organisation can do is delist them as the Contract for the Web is not a legally binding document.
‘Set the right standard’
The larger idea with this ‘Contract’ is to set the norms, best practices when it comes to creating a web that benefits everyone. “Obviously, this is not a United Nations document. Although we are speaking with the United Nations about it. We can’t force governments to do anything but as a starting point, we actually have to agree as a global community, what are the right standards,” Sharpe said.
As part of the short-term goals, the aim is to build concrete solutions that support the goals set out in the contract. The organisation knows there’s still work to do regarding what the best practices should be regarding an ideal web.
For example, she explains that when it comes to user interface there are no clear policies. “There’s what’s called the dark design pattern where you download an app. So there’s a big big button that says YES I ACCEPT, and a very small button that says No thank you. People don’t actually understand what they’re consenting to, what information is being collected, ” she said.
The organisation’s work will look at setting standards even in user design, which are pro-privacy. The World Wide Web Foundation will work with others to actually build out on what these standards should be, keeping in mind the principles that are laid out in the ‘Contract’. The organisation will also be enforcing and measuring the progress of endorsers.
A big part of the Contract is about citizen action, and also about giving individuals some sense of control and a way to take action. People around the world feel fear they feel that they are out of control about their data…how companies and governments are exploiting their online experience. So we want to give citizens an opportunity to take action. I think that’s the big message that Sir Tim wants to send. There is hope,” Sharpe said.
The Nine Principles
The principles for governments are as follows: Ensuring everyone can connect to the internet, keeping all of the internet available all of the time and respecting and protecting people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.
The principles for the government want them to ensure that policies are framed in such a way that everyone can access the internet, especially groups which are often marginalised such as women and minorities, by working to keep internet costs low.
The principles also ask for governments to ensure legal frameworks and work to reduce internet shutdowns, which are a problem in many countries, including India.
For companies, the principles set out are making the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respecting and protecting people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust, and to develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.
Regarding online privacy of users, which is an issue in sharp focus these days, the Contract asks companies to “carry out regular and pro-active data processing impact assessments” which should be “made available to regulators” that are reviewing the companies.
The Contract also has principles for the user, civil society members and all of us who make the web what it is today. It calls for individuals to be creators and collaborators on the Web, for building strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, and lastly to fight for the Web. Individuals can also endorse this Contract from the official website.
How the ‘Contract’ came about
It was the result of a year-long effort with over 80 experts from around the world coming together to draft these clauses and principles. There were five working groups that worked on some of the main themes. For example there was a Privacy Working Group, there was an Access and affordability Working Group, who all worked together to bring these clauses to life.