Clicks ’n Tricks: A contract for the web

Wed, 15/05/2019 - 09:00

The web is broken. And its founder, Tim Berners-Lee, wants us all to do our part to fix it.

Announcing his vision for a “Contract for the Web” at Web Summit, the world’s largest tech conference which took place in Lisbon in early November 2018, Berners-Lee’s keynote overshadowed speeches from the likes of Tony Blair, Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann and Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter.

The talk resonated at an event that was supposed to celebrate the glorious future of the internet but was dominated by the series of scandals engulfing Facebook and broader concerns that GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) has grown too powerful.

Fixing the internet
A decade ago, Berners-Lee was adamant that his invention should not be policed but, reflecting on recent developments including abuses of personal data, click-bait, trolling, fake news, the proliferation of dodgy ad inventory and censorship, he’s changed his mind.

Postulating that the web is at a tipping point (next year it’s projected that half the world’s population will be online), he believes that our privacy merits proper protection to make sure that those of us already using the internet are given the web we deserve and that those who are still to come online are provided with a safer and more-trustworthy environment than the one that’s currently served up.

His campaign seeks to persuade governments, companies and individuals to sign a treaty that will ultimately defend a free and open internet. For the time being, the ‘contract for the web’ is light on detail and really only represents a core set of principles, but it’s is expected to be formalised by May 2019 in time to mark the 30th anniversary of the web.

The intent, according to World Wide Web CEO, Adrian Lovett, is to package the principles into something that the UN or the G7 can adopt. The trickledown effect will then mandate that members of these organisations are then held accountable for sticking to the agreement.

The contract has already received a number of high-profile endorsement, with the likes of the French government, Internet Sans Frontieres, Google and Facebook coming on board. But, according to the Financial Times (subscription required to read), Amazon has chosen not to sign up as of yet.

Break up GAFA
Berners-Lee has been vocal in his criticism of GAFA’s power and has called for the tech giants to be broken up unless consumer trends in internet consumption change or competitors emerge to weaken their power.

He’s also expressed concern at the increased frequency with which national governments are closing down the internet — reports that 81 reported shutdowns occurred between January and June this year, with most taking place in Asia and Africa (parts of Cameroon were offline for 230 days between January 2017 and March 2018).

Web inequalities
His Web Foundation recently found that, while nearly half the world’s inhabitants are online, the growth of internet access around the world has slowed dramatically from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% last year.

Troublingly, this slowdown is impacting those in greatest need of internet access and is likely to further exacerbate the gulf between the haves and the have-nots (research from University of California, Berkeley suggests that a 10% rise in broadband access contributes a 1.35% increase in GDP in developing countries).

A report in the Guardian indicates that African women are the most affected and, if the trend continues, will be ‘pushed to the margins of society’.

While Berners-Lee pretty much stole the show at Web Summit, around 1 200 other speakers presented to an audience of 70 000+ delegates. I’m sure there was tons of interesting content — those with time on their hands over the holidays may check the Summit’s official YouTube channel where hundreds of the decks are available — but, to my mind, it’s incumbent on all of us, and particularly those of us living on this glorious continent, to join the World Wide Web Foundation’s mission to make the internet a better, more equitable and more accessible place. You may sign up to the contract for the web here.

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