The web is under attack: This ambitious project aims to save it

Misinformation, deliberate blackouts and the worst consequences of big tech are undermining the online world. The Web Foundation thinks it may have a way to fight back.

Tim Berners-Lee: In 30 years, the web will go beyond our imagination Working out where the web will go next is hard. But figuring out where we would like it to go is a little easier, says the inventor of the world wide web.

Half of the world is now online and 30 years of the web has delivered such a vast array of innovation that it's hard to list it all.

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And yet in the last few years doubts have started to emerge. There is a sense that as much as the web has made information easier to find, created new business models, connected us up and made our lives easier, there are also aspects that are no longer improving our lives, but actually damaging them.

Encroaching digital surveillance, government-orchestrated web blackouts, misinformation and companies making vast profits from our personal data: all of these developments are souring our experience of the online world. 

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Forget the cute cat pics and must-share memes: the deal between us and the web has turned increasingly Faustian.

In response to all of this anxiety, late last year Tim Berners-Lee – who created the World Wide Web back in 1989 – outlined his plan for a new deal for the web, which he called a 'Contract for the Web'.

It's a set of principles for the web, which outline how businesses, governments and individual web users should behave to keep the web healthy.

Behind it is the fundamental idea that the web should be considered a public good that serves people rather than the other way around, says Adrian Lovett, CEO of the Web Foundation, which is working to bring the project to fruition.

So where did the web go wrong?

"It has been a gradual and initially less visible turn of the ship in the last four or five years," says Lovett. While there was no one event that sparked the work, Lovett says last year's Cambridge Analytica scandal was one decisive moment.

The Contract for the Web is based around a set of nine basic principles. It asks that governments will ensure everyone can connect to the internet, to keep all of the internet available, all of the time, and to respect people's fundamental right to privacy. Companies are asked to make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respect consumers' privacy and personal data, and develop technologies that support the best in humanity, while challenging the worst. Meanwhile, individual web users should become creators and collaborators, and fight to keep the web open.

Few would disagree with such high-minded concepts, and the Web Foundation knows that to make any impact it has to go further than that.

"We always were clear that if we stopped at these principles then it would be nothing more than nice language," Lovett acknowledges. As such, it is working on ways to make sure that the governments and companies that sign up to these commitments actually stick to them.

Just how that is going to happen is something that the Web Foundation is trying to work out.

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Lovett: "I think there is more than enough very evident energy at all levels to fix these problems."

Image: Web Foundation

"There won't be one piece of legislation or one voluntary code, there will be a range of things that would come out of this, recognising the breadth of the agenda and the complexity of the challenge," he says.

That might include asking governments to formally sign up to a promise not to shut down the internet, except in very exceptional circumstances, or suggesting new regulations around privacy, or publishing a regular accountability report that can put the spotlight on those making efforts to keep the web open – and those that have gone in the other direction.

The Web Foundation has a number of groups working to try and flesh out the ideas from the basic principles. Half of the members of the groups come from civil society, like non-governmental organisations and campaigning groups, 35 percent private sector and 15 percent government.

But some of the firms that are supporting the contract are the big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which are often criticised for being – at the very least – partly responsible for the downward spiral the web is in.

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If they got us into this mess can they really get us out of it? Lovett argues that the big tech companies have to be part of the answer.

"We have to be going to where the problem is and where the power is and the means to actually do something about it. And that means getting people around a table and we're fairly unapologetic for that, but we absolutely recognise this process should be judged by how it turns out in the coming months and years," he says.

The version of the web that many people experience today is one that does not bring out the best in humanity, he says – but he argues that people still agree with the core values of the web set out in the early days: the web a free space for innovation and enterprise, aimed at bringing out the best in people and the diversity of human nature. 

"I think that is something that we can shoot for," he says. "I think there is more than enough very evident energy at all levels to fix these problems, so the idea that we've gone too far and there is some unstoppable force, either in big companies or in the architecture of the web now, just doesn't seem plausible to me."