A non-binding contract?

Last year, Tim Berners-Lee launched his Contract for the Web, setting out what he hopes will be our rights and freedoms on the internet. It wasn’t received entirely positively at the time, but Tim’s persisting.

Contract for the Web
Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. The Contract for the Web was created by representatives from over 80 organizations, representing governments, companies and civil society, and sets out commitments to guide digital policy agendas. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.

We can all get involved — governments, corporations, individuals.

Contract for the Web: Tim Berners-Lee calls on world governments (and us all) to make the web a force for goodBoingBoing
Governments that sign on are asked to promise to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet,” to “keep all the internet available all the time,” and to “respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.”

Corporate signatories promise that they 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.”

Individuals are asked to “be creators and collaborators on the Web,” “build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity,” and “fight for the Web.”

It’s the digital equivalent of the climate crisis.

Tim Berners-Lee unveils global plan to save the webThe Guardian
“I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater,” Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, told the Guardian. “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”

But, as before, doubts remain.

Tim Berners-Lee: web inventor’s plan to save the internet is admirable, but doomed to failThe Conversation
But the fact that Google and Facebook back the contract raises some questions. Do they really want to help reform the web to curb their worst behaviour or will manipulation continue to be the cost of access?

The algorithms of Google, Facebook and Twitter determine what people see online, whether that is adverts or political content. The contract does nothing to resolve this huge imbalance in influence and power. Many of us feel like we have no choice but to use their services, and they often use openness – such as free email and free apps like Google Maps – as a way of furthering their control over everything people do online.

Google makes money from people using free services, mostly by hoovering up our data to fuel targeted ads, and its business model isn’t likely to change overnight. For internet reform to succeed, it would need international collaboration between governments for effective regulation, along with pressure from users.

Sounds unlikely, to be honest. Unfortunately.

Update 05/12/2019

I’ve just come across this article that I thought fits well here, trying to imagine an internet that serves the public interest. It seems such a quaint idea, but one with a solid history behind, thanks in part to radio and the BBC.

Building a more honest internetColumbia Journalism Review
Of the world’s top hundred websites, Wikipedia is the sole noncommercial site. If the contemporary internet is a city, Wikipedia is the lone public park; all the rest of our public spaces are shopping malls—open to the general public, but subject to the rules and logic of commerce.

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

web-beginnings-and-endings

Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

web-beginnings-and-endings-1

But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

web-beginnings-and-endings-3

Who’s next, I wonder.

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

Can Tim Berners-Lee fix what he started?

We’re growing increasingly disillusioned with the web, but the guy behind it has a plan — a “Contract for the Web” that he hopes will set out our rights and freedoms on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse
“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

For it to work, the big tech companies need to be behind it. No problem, right?

One of the early signatories to the contract, Facebook, has been fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal; has faced threats from the EU for taking too long to remove extremist content; and has been sued for allowing advertisers to target housing ads only at white people. The firm, which has appointed the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to lead its PR operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another early signatory, Google, is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. “If you sign up to the principles, you can’t do censorship,” said Berners-Lee. “Will this be enough to make search engines push back? Will it be persuasive enough for the Chinese government to be more open? I can’t predict whether that will happen,” he said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Hmm. I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to– what, make less money?

“I was devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

tim-1

“Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”

That’s it in a nutshell, for me. The web just isn’t the same as it was at the beginning.

The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.

Tim Wu is a law professor and ‘influential tech thinker’. Here’s his take on what went wrong.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’
Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The Guardian certainly likes to report on versions of this story, but only in November and March, it seems.

Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’ [November 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web
The inventor of the world wide web warns over concentration of power among a few companies ‘controlling which ideas are shared’ [March 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’
The inventor of the world wide web remains an optimist but sees a ‘nasty wind’ blowing amid concerns over advertising, net neutrality and fake news [November 2017]

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone [March 2017]