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Can Tim Berners-Lee really save the internet?

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Harvey Day
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At the Web Summit in Lisbon, Sir Tim Berners-Lee announced the ‘Contract for the Web,’ which he hopes will begin the process of regulating the rules and responsibilities of the internet 

Back in the stone age days of the internet – aka the 1980s – Tim Berners-Lee, then a little-known tech contractor, was tinkering away at CERN trying to come up with a way to use computer networks to improve communication among researchers.

His solution? The World Wide Web, the system we use to access the internet.

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Sir Tim has described his invention as a genuine eureka moment:

“I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web.

“Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together.”

Since then, TBL has become a national treasure – even popping up at the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony – but, like Frankenstein’s monster, his brainchild has taken on a frightening life of its own.

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The web has come to dominate pretty much every aspect of our lives and has brought plenty of problems too, including: a revolutionary change in how we communicate via social media, the enormous spread of false information and hate speech, online political manipulation, threats to net neutrality, the mishandling and abuse of our private data and the rise of monstrously-large, enormously-powerful, the obliteration of entire industries, basically-unregulated internet-tech companies like Facebook and Amazon – and the über rich who profit from them.

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But internet titan Tim Berners-Lee isn’t taking all this lying down. No, in fact he’s just announced a new ‘Contract for the Web’ at the Web Summit in Lisbon, which he hopes will define and solidify the responsibilities that governments, companies and citizens each have to create a better web.

Speaking from the Web Summit, Berners-Lee said: “The web is at a crucial point. More than half the world’s population remains offline, and the rate of new people getting connected is slowing. Those of us who are online are seeing our rights and freedoms threatened.

“We need a new Contract for the Web, with clear and tough responsibilities for those who have the power to make it better. I hope more people will join us to build the web we want.”

Sir Tim is calling for people to get involved in a process to build a full ‘Contract for the Web’ that will be published in May 2019 — the ‘50/50 moment’ when more than half the world’s population will be online.

The ‘Contract for the Web’ proposal launched with backing from more than 50 organisations, including the French government, civil society organisations such as Access Now, Internet Sans Frontières, Project Isizwe, NewNow and the Digital Empowerment Foundation, as well as companies including Google, AnchorFree, Facebook and Cloudflare.

Adrian Lovett, the Web Foundation’s president and CEO, added: “For three decades we’ve seen the tremendous good that the web can deliver. As we work to expand its benefits to everyone, we need to make sure the web serves humanity, not the other way round. This can’t be accomplished by any one company or country alone. It’ll take all of us — debating, negotiating and collaborating to shape a better web.”

It’s a noble aim to create a comprehensive rulebook by which the web could be regulated and problems could be stamped out – but is it really feasible? And is it enough to curb the worst excesses of the internet?

Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based internet campaign group Center for Democracy & Technology, said: “A generation on from the birth of the World Wide Web, it is entirely appropriate to evaluate what the internet has wrought - on individuals, communities, and society - and consider what we can do better to advance human dignity and democracy. We applaud Tim Berners-Lee and all who seek to make our digital world a better place.”

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Meanwhile, Dr Roxana Radu, a writer and researcher of internet governance, digital policy and algorithmic regulation at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, has concerns that Sir Tim’s plan might not have enough credibility.

“In the last couple of years, the Internet lost the trust of its users, moving further away from being perceived as a public good and closer to a ‘walled garden,’” she told ShortList.

“In 2018, the Internet is a global domain of power, run by a few powerful Internet companies (American and Chinese) and under the control of a few strong governments.

“These two developments are particularly concerning as the Internet is the medium on which everything happens nowadays and it tends to reflect more entrenched corporate and governmental interests than public interest. With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) systems and quantum computing, a new struggle for power is emerging, likely to take precedent over digital rights and protections.”

Do we need a new Magna Carta for the internet?

So will Tim Berners-Lee’s plan be good enough?

“The proposals for a digital ‘Magna Carta’ by Tim Berners-Lee are not new,” says Radu.

“The Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights, passed into law in April 2014, created momentum for consolidating support for such a project, similar to the Great Charter of Liberties, a law passed in England in 1215, and finally transformed into statute law in 1297, guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms.

“Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘Contract for the web’ is not contractual and risks losing credibility in its attempt to reach a minimum denominator so that as many entities as possible can subscribe to it - among the early signatories we find Google and Facebook, whose business models largely contradict the principles listed.

“What this proposed ‘Magna Carta for the web’ does is to partially address the issue of people’s trust in governments and companies, at the level of connectivity, hardware and software, leaving aside the bigger questions of Internet content and Internet governance. Everyone must not only have access to and afford the Internet, but also have the knowledge to make use of this medium in a non-detrimental way to themselves and to others.

“Lee’s ‘digital Magna Carta’ seems to refer to the Internet as the web of blogs and webpages, but we are now in the web of mega communities and algorithmic decision-making, which requires an understanding of the ethical limits we may want to impose on machine learning and automated systems. A public good-oriented approach to the Internet needs to be substantiated at the macro level, taking into account the limitations of corporate ownership and governmental control.”

Dr Radu also discussed the one thing, if she had the power, that she’d love to change about the internet.

“One desirable change for the Internet would be the introduction of a people-centred approach to regulation. This might include, among others, certification and labelling for everything connected to digital traces, introducing a system similar to what we have for organic and fair trade products, where the source is verified and the consumer has a clear way of identifying what has been vetted and what hasn’t.”

We wish you well, Sir Tim. God knows the internet needs help - and soon. 

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(Images: Getty)

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Harvey Day

Digital writer for Shortlist.com / @harveyday94 / harvey.day@shortlist.com

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