Did the Internet take a dark turn? Its inventor says yes.


Image via Pixabay.

This Monday, world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee announced that a new “contract” is in the works, aiming to ensure that the platform remains “safe and accessible” for all.

You were the promised one!

“All kinds of things have things have gone wrong,” said Berners-Lee at the opening of the Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech event.

“We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have people being profiled and manipulated,” he said.

Back in 1989, when the Web was first developed, Berners-Lee saw it as a pioneer for new horizons. He saw it as “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries,” according to an open letter he penned in 2017.

However, that vision has withered on the vine. Berners-Lee confessed he’s “increasingly worried” about how the Web is evolving. The lack of privacy, the spread of misinformation, and lack of transparency in online political advertising are some of the biggest rotten apples. All in all, he feels that the Internet has to be saved from itself — so Berners-Lee is now trying to rally companies, governments, and citizens to the cause.

His plan is to create a new “Contract for the Web.” A nod to Hobbe’s concept of the social contract, the new framework aims to ensure that the Internet is used ethically and transparently for all participants. Governments, companies, and citizens are welcomed to pitch in, and Berners-Lee plans to have the new contract ready by May 2019. The date marks the earliest estimate for when 50% or more of humanity will be connected to the Internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

“All kinds of things have gone wrong” with the internet, says Berners-Lee.

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“We’ve lost control of our personal data and that data is being weaponised against us. The power to access news and information from around the globe is being manipulated by malicious actors,” his Web Foundation said in a report outlining the need for a new contract for the web.

“Online harassment is rampant, and governments are increasingly censoring information online—or shutting down the internet altogether.”

Employees of Google, Facebook, and other tech giants have also voiced similar concerns publicly over the past few months. Overall, they say the products they’ve worked on have grown to become addictive and harmful to society.

The French government, Google, and Facebook have said that they back the proposal, the Web Foundation reports — especially the right to privacy and the guarantee that anyone should be able to connect to the Web. The two firms collectively control over three-quarters of all internet traffic through their apps, such as YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Freeing constraints

“We have big and small players, it’s not the UN of the digital world, it’s a call for voluntary engagement, for those who want to be part of the solution, whether they’re part of the problem or not,” the foundation’s policy director, Nnenna Nwakanma, told AFP.

Recent research has found that over 2 billion people live in places where internet is prohibitively expensive to access. The Web Foundation says that most people who aren’t yet online live in poor countries. It also criticized the fact that “billions” of people have to connect to the Web through “a small handful of huge companies.”

The contract (in its current, work-in-progress version) includes some short principles aimed towards three sectors: government, private companies, and citizens. They’re meant to ensure a free and open web for all, but some concerns have been raised as to their currently-vague nature. For example, one principle holds that companies “respect consumers’ privacy and personal data,” which is a very noble goal that I wholeheartedly support — but one that’s extremely hard to quantify and thus extremely tricky from a legal point of view.

Still, there is hope in sight. The initiative has been joined by over 50 high-profile partners — including Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, alongside those listed earlier — who have signed the contract. With such support, the Contract may just turn out fine.

So what is your take on the issue? I grew up on the wild web of yore, and I will die on the hill of free, neutral internet if need be. It also helps that I was raised in Eastern Europe so I have a deeply-ingrained aversion against limits to freedom.

But at the same time, Berners-Lee’s warnings do have weight. Depending on where you live, you’ve likely seen your government make some dubious-if-not-outright (far-right?) authoritarian choices in regard to how the Internet works. A completely free internet also means companies like Facebook can keep selling our data to the likes of Cambridge Analytica, and that Russian trolls can keep posting weak memes on obscure groups (that somehow still sway elections and patterns of vaccination) with impunity.

One serves as a reminder that the freedom we enjoy on the Internet today will always be in the crosshairs of those who seek power and profit. The other reminds us that it can be hijacked by toxic actors looking to get away with (figurative) murder. It’s a delicate balancing act, but limiting some freedoms could end up creating a fairer, more open Web.

How would you like to see Internet 2.0?