The internet today isn’t what Tim Berners-Lee pictured when he invented the World Wide Web nearly three decades ago.
In a talk at the opening of the Web Summit in Lisbon on Monday, the inventor of the web called on governments, companies and individuals to back a new “Contract for the Web” that aims to protect people’s rights and freedoms on the internet. Berners-Lee said the web is “at a tipping point” as it faces threats like market concentration, data breaches and so-called “fake news.”
“For a long time, 20 years, I thought all I had to do was keep it, just keep it free and open and people will do wonderful things,” Berners-Lee told CNBC’s Karen Tso. “Then in fact if you look and talk to people on the street now there’s been a big change. I think this has been been a tipping point.”
The London-born computer scientist said the web is no longer the open, constructive platform he envisioned when he invented it 29 years ago. He rattled off a long list of concerns, such as user frustration with ads and privacy, hate speech and fake news. Last week he told Reuters that tech giants like Google and Facebook may have to be broken up citing “danger of concentration.”
Under the principles laid out in the document, which Berners-Lee calls a “Magna Carta for the web”, governments must ensure that its citizens have access to all of the internet, all of the time, and that their privacy is respected so they can be online “freely, safely and without fear.”
Meanwhile, companies commit to making the internet affordable and accessible to all; respecting consumer privacy and personal data; and developing technologies that ensure the web is “a public good that puts people first”.
Berners-Lee concedes it will be hard to measure the success of the contract, which will be promoted through a campaign called #ForTheWeb. But he believes it will help steer conversations in governments and boardrooms, and give the public a means to hold the powerful to account.
One key pillar of this initiative is that companies respect consumers’ privacy and personal data. Facebook in particular has been under scrutiny after a series of data breaches exposing millions of users’ personal information.
Despite recent legislation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, the World Wide Web Foundation estimates 1.5 billion currently people live in a country with no comprehensive law on personal data protection. The contract requires governments to treat privacy as a fundamental human right, an idea increasingly backed by big tech leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
The contract also demands governments keep all of the internet available, all of the time. In a report released along with the contract, the World Wide Web Foundation urged governments to protect net neutrality and ensure all traffic online is treated equality.
“A neutral internet is at the heart of the web’s founding and its subsequent success and popularity,” the report said.