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25 Nov, 2019 22:53

World Wide Web creator wants ‘Contract for the Web,’ but crowd-pleasing solutions backed by Big Tech leave many questions

World Wide Web creator wants ‘Contract for the Web,’ but crowd-pleasing solutions backed by Big Tech leave many questions

Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee has unveiled a nine-point plan to “save the internet.” Cooked up with the help of some of the web’s biggest players, it has something for everyone, but begs the question of who will enforce it.

If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong,” Web inventor Berners-Lee told the Guardian on Sunday, after his Web Foundation published the plan, the product of a year of work from some 80 collaborating organizations.

We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around.

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Most of the nine principles are relatively straightforward - “Ensure everyone can connect to the internet,” “Keep all of the internet available, all of the time,” “Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone.” Others appear to present a much-needed challenge to Big Tech’s status quo: “Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights,” “Respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust.”

Some, while agreeable enough on the surface, hint at the existence of a judging authority - “Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst,” “Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity” - and beg the question of who will be doing that judging.

The contract’s “about” page reveals that its primary authors are the governments of France and Germany, both of which have strict internet 'hate speech' laws, and Google and Microsoft, both of which have a record of collaborating with governments in surveillance and censorship. In this light, all the contract’s talk of openness and freedom takes on an ominous cast.

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It’s not clear from the contract’s website or Berners-Lee’s public statements who will be responsible for enforcing the principles. Violators are threatened with removal from the contract, but plenty of the corporations listed among the 150-plus groups to sign on have already been hammered for violating similar principles - Amnesty International just last week called out Google and Facebook for “posing a systemic threat to human rights” through massive privacy violation and control of users’ digital lives.

Indeed, some of the worst privacy offenders - with the notable exception of Amazon - have signed on to Berners-Lee’s plan. As one of the chief overseers of the contract, Google is unlikely to pursue Google for violating its principles, meaning that if any companies are disciplined, they will be the smaller players challenging Google’s dominance.

Adoption of the contract is of course voluntary, but the organization is quite open about its desire to ostracize companies that don’t sign on. “We will have succeeded when those governments and companies [that don’t back the contract’s principles] are true outliers,” it says, casting a side-eye at “some global actors who…flout other global agreements.” Eventually, it hopes to embed the contract in UN regulations and even the laws of individual nations. 

Google’s unavoidable presence behind the contract raised more than a few eyebrows on social media, with many questioning the motives of "internet reform" backed by the companies that broke the internet in the first place.

Impossible to see this as more than (at best misguided) astroturf - when Google and EFF related corps and front groups have signed on as supporters,” tweeted journalist Yasha Levine, who literally wrote the book about the internet’s roots in surveillance technology.

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