Tim Berners-Lee wants to fix the web, 30 years on

Can a new deal for the web improve the way governments, businesses and citizens operate online?

The world-wide web is nearly 30 years old and is used by almost half the people on the planet. But recently some have started to worry that its faults are beginning to edge out its benefits.

For the first 15 years of its existence, people "just expected the web to do great things" said Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web while working at CERN in the 1980s.

Speaking at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Berners-Lee said there was an optimistic assumption that connecting people with the web would make us more communicative, more peaceful and more constructive.

The thinking was: "If you connect people together and keep the web free and open, then people could do good things -- what could go wrong?"

"Well, looking back, all kinds of things have gone wrong since," Berners-Lee admitted, before listing some of the many problems of the modern web: fake news; problems with privacy; abuse of personal data; and the way people can be profiled and then manipulated.

Looking for a revolution

Berners-Lee is developing a new 'Contract for the web' based on a set of principles that he plans to publish in full in May 2019 -- the '50/50 moment' when more than half the world's population will be online.

The contract is based on nine key principles: three each for governments, businesses and citizens.

Governments should, for example, ensure that everyone can connect to the internet, and should keep all the internet available all the time, and respect people's fundamental right to privacy.

Companies should make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respect consumers' privacy and personal data, and "develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst".

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Individual web users are urged to be creators and collaborators on the web, to build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, and to fight for the web to remain open.

Many of these principles seem to run contrary to how the web is currently treated. Many governments use it as a vehicle for surveillance and censorship, while companies base their business models on gathering as much personal data as possible.

Berners-Lee said web users are passive consumers who gather in like-minded communities rather than using their creative energy to reach out to new groups.

In the new contract, Berners-Lee realizes he is asking a lot.

"Everybody is responsible going forward for making the web a better web in different ways," he said.

"The ad-based funding model doesn't have to work in the same way -- it doesn't have to create click-bait. It doesn't have to be that the only reason that you get a programming job is to distract your user from doing what they're trying to do. We are looking for a revolution."

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Tim Berners-Lee: "We are looking for a revolution."

Image: Web Summit/YouTube

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