The Contract for the Web is an initiative that aims to save the Internet from negative forces that have tainted the original objectives of what many argue is man’s greatest invention. Led by the World Wide Web Foundation, and authored by the creator of the HTTP Protocol, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, this endeavor is a pledge that contains nine fundamental principles that aim to save us from a digital dystopia.
Challenges Facing the Modern Internet
Since its commercialization, the Internet has continued to evolve at an unprecedented pace. Developers and digital entrepreneurs are continually creating innovative solutions that have an impact on the way we work, live, and communicate. However, as this virtual realm continues to infiltrate every part of our daily lives, some individuals, corporations, and governments have leveraged the Internet for nefarious purposes.
Since the dawn of time, people have always created a narrative that suits their ideologies and objectives. One only needs to look at the various accounts of the same historical event to see that ‘fake news’ has existed throughout human history. The Internet did not create this corrupt phenomenon. It has only acted as a catalyst that broadcasts it to a broader audience at an exponentially rapid pace. Interestingly, a study by MIT found that false news travels much faster than true stories.
Lack of Universal Availability
Another challenge facing the Web is government censorship and the availability of the Internet in certain parts of the world. The digitization of all aspects of society has transformed the Web from a commodity to an essential utility. One could even argue that it is as essential as power and water due to the multitude of vital services that rely on its availability. Access to the Internet is also a crucial ingredient for innovation and economic growth. However, a real digital divide exists between various population groups across the globe. According to the Internet Health Report, more than half of the world is now online. However, that statistic is skewed towards developed countries. Nearly 80% of Europeans have access to the Internet, while only 24% of Africans have access to online services.
Disregard for Individual Privacy Rights
The right to privacy is a fundamental human right enshrined in many constitutions across the world. However, since the launch of the World Wide Web, tracking users and their online activities is a fundamental business model for many organizations, particularly those that provide a ‘free’ service. Using the gathered information, they sell targeted advertising to cover their expenses and ultimately make a profit. However, this free gathering of data has led to multiple instances where organizations have leveraged these customer databases for illicit purposes. In addition to unlawfully using information, organizations have also not put the appropriate measures in place to protect the data under their care. One only needs to review the annual Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report or the daily news headlines to find undisputed evidence of this negligence.
Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, announced his Contract for the Web in November 2018. Based on nine principles, the document outlines key responsibilities for governments, companies, and individuals.
Governments play a vital role in the Internet ecosystem. Historically, corporations invested in the infrastructure, enabling the provision of Internet services to a particular country or region. However, in certain parts of the world, these corporations are state-owned. Even in countries where private enterprise provides all Internet services, governments still try and control the Internet through legislation, statutory compliance, and enforcing regulations. Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web contains three principles for governments to ensure a free, fair, and safe Internet for all.
Ensure everyone can connect to the internet
The Contract for the Web’s first principle acknowledges the vital role the Internet plays in today’s digitally-driven society. It urges governments to ensure that anyone, no matter where they may live, can access online services and actively participate in the modern economy. The Contract states that governments should set and track ambitious policy goals, such as limiting the cost of 1 GB of mobile data to 2% of their population’s average income. It also stipulates that governments should design robust policy-frameworks and transparent enforcement institutions while ensuring everyone has meaningful Internet access.
Keep all of the internet available, all of the time
The second principle deals with the availability of the Internet. Under this section of the Contract, it recommends that governments establish legal and regulatory frameworks to minimize government-triggered disruptions. This principle also stipulates that demands to remove illegal content are consistent with human rights law. It also dictates that the authorities need to promote openness and competition at both the access and content layers of the Internet.
Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights
The third principle deals with the individual’s right to online privacy and the data they create, store, or transmit over the Internet. The primary objective of this principle is to ensure everyone can use the Internet freely, safely, and without fear. It states that governments need to establish and enforce comprehensive data protection and rights frameworks. Any demands to access private data must also be necessary and proportionate to the aim pursued. It also states that governments must take responsibility for supporting and monitoring privacy and online data rights in their jurisdictions.
Commercial Organizations are the second stakeholder group, identified by the Contract for the Web, that have a vital role to play in ensuring the freedom, longevity, and availability of the Internet. As the World Wide Web has effectively woven itself into the fabric of modern society, companies either provide services that enable Internet access or leverage the Internet to reach their customers and subscribers.
Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone
The first principle companies need to observe aligns with the fundamental rule at the essence of the Contract for the Web regarding universal availability. The document states that companies must craft policies that address the needs of systematically excluded groups and work towards an ever-increasing quality of service. Companies also need to ensure the full use of the Internet by all through close coordination with the Government and Civil Society.
Respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust
As with government entities, companies also need to adhere to the core principle of the right to personal privacy. The doctrine states that companies need to give people control over their privacy and data rights. Organizations must also support corporate accountability and robust privacy by making these rights equally available to everyone.
Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst
The third principle companies need to adhere to as stipulated in the Contract for the Web aims to ensure the Web makes a positive impact on society and puts people first. It states that organizations must take accountability for their work and provide regular reports on how they respect and support human rights. This principle also asks companies to engage communities inclusively and support digital commons by upholding and developing open web standards, promoting interoperability, open-source technologies, and unfettered access for all.
The third stakeholder group identified by the Contract for the Web is individuals, or what the document describes as web citizens. As users of the Internet, people also have a responsibility to ensure the Internet continues to provide a safe place for human beings to create, communicate, and build interactive relationships with each other.
Be creators and collaborators on the Web
The first principle the Contract for the Web assigns to citizens is that we must continue to create content and collaborate in building a better world for the future. The document states that we should all actively participate in shaping the Web by creating content and systems that enhance its functionality. We should also leverage and promote the use of open technologies, share best practices, advocate for standard technology that is accessible to everyone, and translate content into local minority languages.
Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity
The core of the second principle states that net citizens need to work towards ensuring everyone feels safe and welcome online. We should continue striving for a more inclusive web by adopting best practices while educating the next generation. We should also stand up for targeted and abused groups taking steps to protect their privacy and security. Refraining from participating in the non-consensual dissemination of any private information is another stipulation that underpins this principle.
Fight for the Web
The final principle states that all citizens must fight for the web to ensure it remains an open, global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future. The Contract for the Web states that we should all be active citizens and continuously strive to create awareness amongst our peers regarding threats to the open Web. We should also oppose the weaponization of the Internet and support organizations, processes, and people that promote unconditional Internet freedom.
Since Tim Berners-Lee announced the Contract for the Web in November 2018, interested parties, including governments, tech companies, and individuals, have helped to draft the 76 clauses that underpin the nine fundamental principles. However, an idea only manifests its advantages when it is properly executed. Encouraging governments and organizations to endorse the Contract for the Web and agree to adhere to its doctrine is the next logical step. We, as net citizens, also need to fight for the enforcement of the nine principles ensuring the Internet remains a free, universally accessible, and safe environment for all of humanity now and into the future.