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The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is now convinced that the modern Internet that he helped to bring into being 30 years ago is now desperately in need of a re-fresh. With that in mind, he recently introduced what he is calling the “Contract for the Web.” This is essentially a rule book for Internet responsibility that lays out key principles for each of the major stakeholders of the Internet – corporation, governments and individuals – to follow. As Berners-Lee sees it, explicitly laying out these rules of the road is the only way to combat some of the biggest perils of the modern web, including mass surveillance, misinformation, fake news and censorship.
Responsibilities for corporations
The most powerful Internet companies in the world, says Berners-Lee, must be doing more to combat the spread of misinformation and fake news. Hiding behind the excuse that they are simply “platforms,” companies like Facebook and Twitter have failed to address the problems at their very core. It’s not only misinformation and fake news – it’s also hate speech, cyber bullying and a lack of respect for civil discourse. Disagree with anyone on social media, and you’ll be attacked by Internet trolls. Even worse, someone might decide to cyber bully you with death threats, or expose some of your personal information by doxxing you.
So it’s a good sign that Facebook and Google have signed on as supporters of the “Contract for the Web.” They have agreed – in principle – to abide by their responsibilities as laid out in the Contract for the Web. However, it’s not exactly clear how hard these companies will fight to change the status quo. After all, Amnesty International recently opined that the business models of Facebook and Google are based on “the abuse of human rights.” (Yikes!)
Responsibilities for governments
Governments around the world, too, have a role to play. Berners-Lee is particularly concerned about the “balkanization of the Internet,” in which countries like Russia, China and Iran splinter off in new directions. Each of these nations, for example, can hardly be called tolerant of dissenting opinion. And Russia has even gone so far as to create an Internet kill switch that would disconnect the Russian Internet (i.e. “Runet”) from the rest of the global Internet. In nations like China, censorship is the rule rather than the exception. And in nations like Saudi Arabia, making negative comments about the ruling monarchy via social media might wind up getting you dismembered in a Turkish consulate, as was the case with Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
Responsibilities for citizens
And everyday users of the Internet also have responsibilities, according to the Contract for the Web. Citizens should be using the web to share information, to create vibrant online communities, and to use their creative talents to enrich the web for everyone. They also have an obligation to hold companies and governments accountable for their actions.
The next 30 years of the Web
If all three sets of stakeholders – corporations, governments and citizens – hold up their share of the bargain, the next 30 years of the Internet might just be as dynamic, innovative and groundbreaking as the first 30 years. That is, of course, if corporations, governments and individuals do what is in their own collective best interest, and not necessarily in their own personal best interest.