Big Tech, Human Rights and the Digital Divide: The World Wide Web at 30

World Wide Web Anniversary

On the 30th anniversary of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee believes “the divide between those who are online and those who are not” makes the principle of an open web more imperative than ever.

Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, has penned an open letter discussing the dangerous path the web is taking in regards to misinformation, hate speech corporate control.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the world wide web, Berners-Lee said that while the web has changed the world, more can be done to ensure that it is improved upon to better serve society.

The web has, by all means, been a force for good, he said; opening up new avenues and presenting new opportunities for millions of people worldwide. However, he insisted that the importance of the web in 2019 makes it “imperative” to ensure that everyone has access, or they risk being excluded from society.

“The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop…a bank, and so much more,” he said. “Of course, with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.”

The past two and a half years have seen a new age of misinformation and social media manipulation dawn. When Berners-Lee founded the world wide web, he may well have had high hopes for what it might bring. The reality, however, is that while the web has facilitated a great deal of good in the world, it has also emboldened and enabled those who would use it for ill means.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created an opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” he added.

This growing “dysfunction” the web is experiencing, he explained, will be a challenge that requires an exceptional degree of cooperation and discussion in years ahead.

In his letter, he outlined three areas that he believes are harming the web today, including:

  • “Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, 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.”

These three dysfunctional aspects of the web, in its current form, seem to have prompted Berners-Lee to reassess the state of the web.

Drawing on previous examples, such as the Declaration of Human Rights and the Outer Space Treaty, which have solidified new frontiers and fundamental principles of freedom, he said that at “pivotal moments, generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future”.

Society today, he insisted, must also step up and alter the trajectory that the web is on; a responsibility bore by governments, society and industry alike to maintain the founding principles of the web.

“As the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good,” he said. “This is why the Web Foundation is working with governments, companies and citizens to build a new Contract for the Web.”

This contract, launched at Web Summit in Lisbon, sought to bring together like-minded people to establish “clear norms, laws and standards that underpin the web” and will draw on suggestions from people/organisations across the world.

Berners-Lee also appeared to fire a broadside at big tech and urged governments to take a tougher stance to ensure markets remain competitive and open.

“They have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online,” he said. “We need open web champions within government – civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten public good.”

“Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety.”

Social media companies, such as Facebook or Twitter have been embroiled in a seemingly endless battle to prevent the spread of misinformation, with “anti-vaxxers” and the misinformation over medicine the latest drama to erupt.

Similarly, discussions over user privacy were also addressed in his open letter, with Berners-Lee insisting that platforms and products “must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind.”

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an open letter last week outlining his vision for a privacy-focused platform in years to come, yet if the last two years are anything to go by, he may be hard-pressed to find users willing to accept this vision at face value.

Related: Mark Zuckerberg Outlines Privacy-Focus Vision for Facebook

Fundamentally, Berners-Lee insisted that the future of the web lies in its users, who will be required to hold governments and companies accountable and demand they “respect the web as a global community with citizens at its heart”.

He said: “If we don’t elect politicians who defend a free and open web, if we don’t do our part to foster constructive healthy conversations online, if we continue to click consent without demanding our data rights be respected, we walk away from our responsibility to put these issues on the priority agenda of our governments.”

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