Update: Mozilla declared on the 28th November, that they now support the Contract for the Web. However, they have not signed the contract yet but would consider doing so if stronger accountability measures are added. Mozilla said they would “like to see a clear method for accountability as part of the signatory process, particularly since some of the big tech platforms are high profile signatories.”
Tim Berners-Lee has been talking extensively about his plans to save the web in the past, also sharing a detailed outline which he called a ‘Contract for the Web’. Over the weekend, he finally launched this global plan to fight misinformation, fake news and propaganda, and other privacy violations.
Berners-Lee had outlined his vision at the Web Summit event last year. He wanted to restore some degree of equilibrium and transparency to the digital realm. He had listed down three sources of problems that are affecting today’s web.
- Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.
- System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
- Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.
Although Berners-Lee was relatively light on detail at that time, the full contract was due to be published in May 2019. The plan got delayed by almost 6 months and was completely unveiled on Saturday, 23rd November 2019.
The agenda of this Contract is to make the online world safe, empowering and genuinely welcoming for everyone. Contract for the Web outlines nine principles inviting governments, companies, civil society organizations and individuals to back the Contract and uphold its principles and clauses. The contract has nine core principles, while underneath them is a total of 76 clauses.
Contract for the Web has been worked on by 80 organizations for more than a year. It has the backing of more than 150 organizations, from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, DuckDuckGo along with the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Amazon remained notable absent from endorsing the principles.
The nine principles of ‘Contract for the Web’
Ensure everyone can connect to the internet
- By setting and tracking ambitious policy goals
- By designing robust policy-frameworks and transparent enforcement institutions to achieve such goals
- By ensuring systematically excluded populations have effective paths towards meaningful internet access
Keep all of the internet available, all of the time
- By establishing legal and regulatory frameworks to minimize government-triggered internet disruptions, and ensure any interference is only done in ways consistent with human rights law
- By creating the capacity to ensure demands to remove illegal content are done in ways that are consistent with human rights law
- By promoting openness and competition in both internet access and content layers
Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights
- By establishing and enforcing comprehensive data protection and rights frameworks
- By requiring that government demands for access to private communications and data are necessary and proportionate to the aim pursued
- By supporting and monitoring privacy and online data rights
Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone
- By crafting policies that address the needs of systematically excluded groups
- By working towards an ever-increasing quality of service.
- By ensuring full use of the internet by all, through close coordination with Government and Civil Society
Respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust
- By giving people control over their privacy and data rights, with clear and meaningful choices to control processes involving their privacy and data
- By supporting corporate accountability and robust privacy and data protection by design
- By making privacy and data rights equally available to everyone
Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst
- By being accountable for their work, through regular reports
- By engaging with all communities in an inclusive way
- By investing in and supporting the digital commons
- Be creators and collaborators on the Web by being active participants in shaping the Web, including content and systems made available through it.
- Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity by working towards a more inclusive Web.
- Fight for the Web by being active citizens so the Web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.
Launching the Contract, Sir Tim said, “The power of the web to transform people’s lives, enrich society and reduce inequality is one of the defining opportunities of our time. 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.
He added, “The forces taking the web in the wrong direction have always been very strong, 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.”
The plan releases at a crucial moment in time as large internet companies like Facebook and Google are facing heightened regulatory pressure over how they handle consumers’ information and protect their privacy. Recently, Amnesty International released a new report calling for a radical transformation of the tech giants’ core business model. It said that Facebook and Google’s omnipresent surveillance of billions of people poses a systemic threat to human rights. Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen also attacked Facebook and other social media platforms in his speech at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). He criticized them for enabling the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation describing Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”.
However, the fact that Google and Facebook have signed up for this plan raised eyebrows. A comment on Hacker news reads, “Does Google and Facebook “signing” it means they agree to abide by the plan? If not, signing it means nothing. If so, then either they are lying, or the plan imposes so few restrictions that it is worthless.”
The plan itself was met with mixed reactions on social media. While some appreciated and backed the contract.
I back Sir Tim Berners Lee's Contract for the Web because the Web does not have to be the sometimes nasty and dangerous place it is now.
It can be changed, it should be changed, it needs to be changed
— Derek Mooney (@dsmooney) November 25, 2019
“If we fail to defend the free and open web, we risk a digital dystopia of entrenched inequality and abuse of rights. We must act now. Join me in backing the Contract for the Web — a global plan of action for the #WebWeWant.” @timberners_lee @webfoundation https://t.co/eU7ExMK6tT
— David Hopkins (@hopkinsdavid) November 25, 2019
Others felt that the plan isn’t taking any strong stances and provides zero actionable guidance.
A comment on Hacker News reads, “I’m sorry, but this just sounds like a bunch of feel-good babble that isn’t taking anything seriously. Free speech? Fundamental rights? “Support the best in humanity”? “Build strong communities”?
Yes, these are all good things. But also all in deep, fundamental conflict with each other. Moral and political philosophers have been debating how to resolve them for centuries… and the disagreements are just as strong as ever.”
Another said, “This new scheme is a sort of UN for Web 1.0? And, like the UN, one that is totally powerless beyond sternly written letters and is governed by some of the greatest infringers of the very rights it’s claiming to protect?”
You can back the Contract for the Web at contractfortheweb.org. Read the full contract here.