Tim Berners-Lee Pushes For 'Contract' to Protect the Web

The contract calls for the development of an open and free internet, but with a pledge by companies to 'respect consumers' privacy' and to design technologies 'that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.'
Tim Berners-Lee Pushes For 'Contract' to Protect the Web
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Can a contract save the internet from abuse?

On Monday, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, promoted the idea with his unveiling of the "Contract for the Web," an effort to get society committed to protecting the internet for the good of all.

The contract calls for the development of an open and free internet, but with a pledge by companies to "respect consumers' privacy" and to design technologies "that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst."

Under the contract, citizens must also support building strong online communities "that respect civil discourse and human dignity." Meanwhile, governments will commit to keeping the web available at all times.

Although the contract is non-binding, the project's goal is to spark an attitude change in how governments, companies and average citizens approach using the internet. "The idea is that everybody is responsible going forward for trying to make the web better in different ways," Berners-Lee said at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon.

Currently, the contract is contained to nine principles, largely free of precise details. Nor does it cover the nitty-gritty of content moderation or defining hate speech. But over the coming months, Berners-Lee and his organization, the World Wide Web Foundation, plan to flesh out the document with input from the tech industry, and publish a final draft in May 2019.

The idea of a contract may sound idealistic, but the effort does have some pretty notable backers. Among them are Google and Facebook. Both have faced ongoing criticism over harvesting people's personal data to serve ads and failing to safeguard the information from third-party companies. However, during the unveiling of the contract, Google vice president Jacquelline Fuller said: "We all need to come together. And that's why Google is supporting the Web foundation. … We think everyone can get behind these principles."

Berners-Lee has become a vocal critic of today's internet landscape. "We have fake news. We have problems with privacy," he said during his speech. "We have problems with abuse of personal data. We have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated."

To address these problems, Berners-Lee hopes the contract can push the tech industry to prioritize products that are good for society as opposed to simply generating revenue. For instance, social networks will no longer become echo chambers, but be designed in a way to let people meet users of different cultures, he said. Citizens will also be mindful to "behave nicely," he added.

"You should be constructive. You should put an effort like the people who make Wikipedia and try to work toward truth," he said. "Don't be swayed or swept up into some undercurrents of hatred-fueled untruth."

So how will the contract be enforced? The World Wide Web Foundation plans to publish progress reports to monitor commitments to the contract. However, the real enforcement will have to come from public pressure. This could take the form of company employees speaking out or average citizens lobbying to hold a tech firm or government accountable, Berners-Lee said.

France is the first government to support the contract. "In Europe, we have a strong belief that there should only be an internet that serves the people and serves the planet," said France's digital issues secretary Mounir Mahjoubi at the conference.

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