Tim Berners-Lee launches yet another campaign to save web

Tim Berners-Lee has launched a new #ForTheWeb campaign, the latest entry into his franchise of endeavours to “save the internet”.

In the past he’s launched a startup to protect user data, pledged his opposition to Article 13, and written a slew of open letters criticising the state of the web and the tech giants who use it. Now he’s launching his “Magna Carta for the web” — presumably he sees himself as the online King John.

Berners-Lee’s #ForTheWeb campaign is a contract for web users, organisations and governments to sign to pledge their support for a more tolerant and honest internet. Organised by Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation, it aims to protect users’ online freedoms and rights. However like Berners-Lee’s previous attempts to save the web it seems largely performative, with no incentives to adhering to, or punishments for ignoring, it.

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Its core principles are equally split between those for governments, companies and individual citizens.

Governments are tasked with ensuring everyone can connect to the internet and are able to access the entirety of the internet at all times. On top of that, users’ rights to privacy must be respected, meaning no more Snoopers’ Charter.

Companies, such as tech giants Facebook and Google, must take equal responsibility for ensuring the internet is accessible for all, and not too expensive to prohibit use. On top of that they must defend users’ private data, and help support and develop technological breakthroughs that “support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”. This vague wording already poses possible loopholes — Twitter defended its decision to consider removing “likes” by saying the lack of it would “incentivizing healthy conversation”, a stance universally mocked.

The rest of the principles were designed for citizens, who have the cushiest principles to adhere to. They must “be creators and collaborators on the web”, build communities that “respect civil discourse”, and must “fight for the web”. Of course, following these rules is what makes some parts of online discourse so toxic in the first place, so it remains to be seen what #ForTheWeb will achieve in this regard.

This initial contract is to be fleshed out into a full contract in May 2019, when it is estimated 50% of the population of the world will have access to the internet. Currently over 50 organisations and individuals have signed, including Google, Facebook and ex-PM Gordon Brown. The latter described it as “one of the great human rights issues of our time”.

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While it’s always reassuring to see important tech figures campaigning for the rights of consumers, in reality it remains to be seen what, if anything, this contract will achieve. Signatories Google and Facebook already flagrantly disregard the principles of the contract, the former of which is developing a censored version of its search engine for China and the latter of which gave data on 50 million users to a political data analytics firm.

There’s no incentive for anyone to sign the contract, no punishment for violating it, and no downside to disregarding it completely. Perhaps it’ll make its signatories feel good about themselves for a while, but it won’t be long before they’re leaking data and mistreating employees all over again.

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