Tim Berners-Lee, English scientist and father of The Web, has been making headlines recently with a proposal for a nicer, less abusive internet where personal data is protected and misinformation is snuffed out.
Since 1989, when Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, the software and open standards layered over the physical infrastructure of connections we know as the internet, he’s been splitting time between lectures and running the web standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium. Now, he’s promoting a “Contract for the Web,” which calls for a consortium of governments and tech companies to combat the issues plaguing the modern web. Spurred by a motivation to reign in online abuse, expand global internet access, ferret out misinformation and generally “put power back in the hands of the people,” it’s a Magna Carta for the web.
And the web needs it! As social media platforms continue to stage increasingly tangled culture wars, and personal data is syphoned up at every possible turn to feed advertising networks, Berners-Lee is rightfully dismayed that the web is in poor health.
In an interview with the Guardian, the scientist aired a few familiar grievances:
“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.”
The accompanying report issued by Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation draws the overarching and obvious conclusion that the modern web is getting progressively less open and less pleasant.
Berners-Lee launched the first URL with the intention of fostering the world’s first truly free and accessible haven for information sharing. But over the last 30 years, the web has transformed from a place of forward-thinking experimentation that gave rise to public goods like Wikipedia into something more closely mirroring a network of fiefdoms that silo users off in isolated corners, rather than supporting them with communal hubs.
Per the foundation’s own findings:
“More than 90% of online searches go through Google, giving the company tremendous power over what people see when searching online. More than half of cloud services run on Amazon. Facebook boasts over 2.2 billion active monthly users, and users of Facebook-owned WhatsApp top 1.5 billion.”
But analyzing a problem is far from solving it. The Contract has proposals, like implementing “comprehensive data protection laws and strong operational frameworks,” and ensuring “automated decisions are explainable and accountable to the people they are meant to serve.” But the onus for implementing sweeping change would necessarily fall to governments, rather than the corporate monoliths that prize growth and scale above all else and are understandably protective of the profitable digital territory they’ve carved out for themselves.
What’s clear however, is that Berners-Lee’s idea is coming about 30 years too late: The Contract for the Web is more of a Magna Carta for the Web 1.0—a founding document the web needed before it became subsumed with various corporate intranets like Facebook, Google and Amazon that actively compete against each other in a constant battle of expansion. Berners-Lee is hoping to thwart the permanent layering of a non-open web over his initial creation, which cherished accessibility. But a return to a truly open web would require a peeling back of the closed platforms that have grown to cover it. And while The Contract for the Web lays out a roadmap, there’s hardly a driving force incentivized to put it into place.
In a crowning irony, that the initiative carries support from Facebook and Google, two companies that hinge on mass data-collection to grow their advertising businesses, and are no strangers to leaking that sensitive information in calamitous fashion. Signing on to the initiative might bolster Facebook’s PR after a prolonged period of terrible optics, but it doesn’t mean anything will necessarily change, and the interests of the social media giant are fundamentally opposed to the priorities of the document that carries its signature.
Asking the foremost tech giants to self-police by virtue of a governing document harkens back to the idealism of the nascent web and Berners-Lee isn’t misguided in pointing out that his baby needs saving. But while the Magna Carta is righteous in its call to move forward to a brighter future, what we really need is to somehow pull back from the abyss.