Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, was talking about a new plan for the worldwide web last year, to defend it from ‘sources of dysfunction’, and that contract – yes, it’s that official – has now been revealed.
The Contract for the Web sets out a number of core guiding principles for governments, companies, and users of the web themselves, to try and make the online landscape a better place on a number of different fronts.
Tech giants will actually have to sign up to support the contract – which comprises of 76 clauses in total – and actively abide by it (or at least that’s the theory). Google, Facebook and Microsoft are among the big tech giants to have already signed up, among 150+ other firms, although names notably missing at this point include Amazon and Apple.
So what are the principles? Governments are tasked with ensuring that all citizens can connect to the internet, and that all of the internet must be available to them, all of the time. In other words, every individual must be able to get online, and there should be no censorship.
Any interference in terms of what can be accessed on the internet should “only [be] done in ways consistent with human rights law”, the contract notes.
Those are some big goals, of course, and policies that clearly won’t go down well in some corners of the world.
In terms of making sure every citizen across the globe has an internet connection, the contract lays out a guideline of access to broadband being available to at least 90% of citizens by 2030. Companies are also called on to make internet access more affordable, to that end.
There’s another major push on the privacy front, as you might expect, with the call for both governments and companies to respect and protect the online privacy rights of those who use the web.
The call to companies, and doubtless the bit that the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft are scrutinizing in particular, asserts what you’d expect in terms of clear explanations of any processes which affect user data and privacy, and the provision of control panels to manage data and privacy options in an easily accessible manner.
There’s also a stipulation that firms should carry out “regular and pro-active data processing impact assessments that are made available to regulators which hold companies accountable for review and scrutiny, to understand how their products and services could better support users’ privacy and data rights”.
Just as interesting is the section which calls for “minimizing data collection to what is adequate, relevant, and necessary in relation to the specified, explicit and legitimate purposes for which the data is processed”.
It doesn’t stop there, though. A further point is to support independent research on how interface designs affect the process of getting consent from users (as well as other considerations) and how these could “influence privacy outcomes”. In other words, this sounds like a call for no more sneaky wording or other potentially misleading UI tricks we’ve seen in the past (like clicking on a cross icon being taken as consent for an OS upgrade).
The contract also says that there should be controls over how personal data is collected, and also used, which can easily be viewed and adjusted by the user.
There are some pretty big asks, then, on the privacy front, and it will certainly be interesting to see how this affects the tech giants who have signed up to the contract going forward. The natural cynical assumption might be that this won’t realistically happen, at least not as it’s laid down in black-and-white here.
However, if the companies who have signed up to the contract can’t show that they are indeed implementing the principles, and working to move forward with them, they may face being booted out from the group of organizations backing the plan. Which may well cast a shadow on the public perception of a firm, if it were to happen…
As Berners-Lee told the Guardian: “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”
A raft of other measures in the contract include the requirement to diversify workforces, and laudable measures to help bring forward a more inclusive web built around strong communities that respect human dignity.
There are a lot of good intentions set out in the contract, that much is clear, but how this all translates into reality as we move forward remains to be seen. Skepticism aside, it’s easy to believe that at least some good will come of it – and hopefully much more than some good…