“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crimes easier to commit,” says Berners-Lee.
His solution? A Contract for the Web, a plan to make online activity safe and accessible for everyone. Berners-Lee compares the contract to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines dignity and freedom for all people.
“As the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognized as a human right and built for the public good,” he says in a statement on behalf of the Web Foundation, the non-governmental organization he founded to promote digital equality.
The contract outlines nine principles for governments, companies and the public, including commitments to ensure everyone can access the internet, that trust is secured through the protection of personal privacy and data and that civility and dignity are front of mind. It’s backed by 150 tech organizations, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
The Web was designed to bring people together and make knowledge freely available. It has changed the world for good and improved the lives of billions. Yet, many people are still unable to access its benefits and, for others, the Web comes with too many unacceptable costs.
Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. The Contract for the Web was created by representatives from over 80 organizations, representing governments, companies and civil society, and sets out commitments to guide digital policy agendas. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.
Tim Berners-Lee has launched a global action plan to save the web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and other malign forces that threaten to plunge the world into a “digital dystopia”.
The Contract for the Web requires endorsing governments, companies and individuals to make concrete commitments to protect the web from abuse and ensure it benefits humanity.
“I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater,” Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, told the Guardian. “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”
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The contract, which has been worked on by 80 organisations for more than a year, outlines nine central principles to safeguard the web – three each for governments, companies and individuals.
The document, published by Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation, has the backing of more than 150 organisations, from Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Facebook to the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. At the time of writing, Amazon had not endorsed the principles.
Those who back the contract must show they are implementing the principles and working on solutions to the tougher problems, or face being removed from the list of endorsers. If the stipulation is properly enforced, some may not last long. A report from Amnesty International accuses Google and Facebook of “enabling human rights harm at a population scale”. The report comes weeks after Google was found to have acquired the personal health records of 50 million Americans without their consent.
The contract’s principles require governments to do all they can to ensure that everyone who wants to can connect to the web and have their privacy respected. People should have access to whatever personal data is held on them and have the right to object or withdraw from having that data processed.
Further principles oblige companies to make internet access affordable and calls on them to develop web services for people with disabilities and those who speak minority languages. To build trust online, companies are compelled to simplify privacy settings by providing control panels where people can access their data and manage their privacy options in one place.
Another principle requires companies to diversify their workforces, consult broad communities before and after they release new products, and assess the risk of their technology spreading misinformation or harming people’s behaviour or personal wellbeing.
Three more principles call on individuals to create rich and relevant content to make the web a valuable place, build strong online communities where everyone feels safe and welcome, and finally, to fight for the web, so it remains open to everyone, everywhere.
“The forces taking the web in the wrong direction have always been very strong,” Berners-Lee said. “Whether you’re a company or a government, controlling the web is a way to make huge profits, or a way of ensuring you remain in power. The people are arguably the most important part of this, because it’s only the people who will be motivated to hold the other two to account.”
Emily Sharpe, the director of policy at the Web Foundation, said: “The web’s power to be a force for good is under threat and people are crying out for change. We are determined to shape that debate using the framework that the Contract sets out.
“Ultimately, we need a global movement for the web like we now have for the environment, so that governments and companies are far more responsive to citizens than they are today. The contract lays the foundations for that movement.”
• This article was amended on 25 November 2019 to include Twitter among the signatories.