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World Wide Web creator unveils contract to ‘fix’ internet

Image credit: reuters

British inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has revealed a comprehensive 'Contract for the Web', with the backing of some of the world’s largest tech giants.

The contract aims to prevent a "digital dystopia" of inequality, censorship, and lack of privacy by laying out dozens of action points for governments, companies, and citizens.

“The power of the web to transform people’s lives, enrich society and reduce inequality is one of the defining opportunities of our time,” said Berners-Lee at the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, as he launched the contract. “But if we don’t act now, and act together, to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide, and undermine, we are at risk of squandering that potential.”

The contract is comprised of 76 clauses, broken down into a set of nine principles: three for governments, three for companies, and three for citizens. It has reportedly been worked on with 80 organisations for over a year.

Governments would be required by the principles of the contract to ensure that everyone can connect to the internet, keep all of the internet available, all of the time, and respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights. If adhered to, this could put an end to internet blackouts at the command of governments, mostly to disarm civil uprisings, such as recent protests by Iranians against a sudden hike in petrol prices. It would also forbid signatories from censoring the internet, such as by blocking access to social media sites and politically sensitive search engine results.

Citizens are called on to be “creators and collaborators” online, to build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, and to “fight for the Web”. Meanwhile, companies must make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build trust online (such as by simplifying privacy settings), and develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

The contract is supported by more than 160 organisations, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, the EFF, Duck Duck Go, GitHub, Twitter, the Open Data Institute, Reddit, and the governments of Germany and France. Amazon has not yet endorsed the principles. It is possible that signing up to the contract will pile further pressure on Google and Facebook – frequently cited as the two companies most aggressively collecting and monetising user data – to change their practices to respect user privacy.

However, World Wide Web Foundation CEO Adrian Lovett clarified in a comment to CNBC that: “Not every organisation has to abide by [all 76 clauses].”

Berners-Lee regularly expresses concern about the state of the internet, including calling for protection of net neutrality in the US, and suggesting the possibility of regulation to fix problems like the gap in internet access between rich and poor and growing ‘weaponisation’ of the internet.

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