The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) were at first almost utopian, at least when they escaped the confines of their military and academic origins and opened up to the general public. Almost 30 years later, the explosion in connectivity, information and transparency has been overshadowed by various worrying, even dystopian, issues such as control, manipulation and fake news, and the inequalities it entails, among others. The web’s British inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, wants to correct these faults to ensure that the Internet continues being free and open. To this end he has put forward a ‘Contract for the Web’, the core principles of which he set out at the recent Web Summit in Lisbon; he hopes to have this ready by March 2019, when it is estimated that for the first time more than half the global population will be connected to the Internet, even if very unevenly.
The Internet is not the be-all and end-all of communication. There are currently more mobile-phone users in the world than Internet users. The former are thought to make up 65% of the world’s population, and when the Internet reaches 50% of users in 2019, mobile owners will number 4.68 billion (out of a global population of 7.7 billion). These devices have thus brought about a communications revolution that has been faster and of greater social impact than the Internet (to which smartphones, projected to be owned by 38% of the population in 2019, compared with only 10% in 2011, are connected).
An interesting report by the World Wide Web Foundation, presided over by Berners-Lee, highlights some of the web’s problems, which can still be remedied if action is taken in time. One is its domination by a small number of gigantic (US) corporations. More than 90% of searches go through Google, more than half of cloud services run on Amazon and Facebook boasts 2.2 billion active monthly users. ‘The responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of these companies and others like them could hardly be greater’, argues the report. The founder of the web had already gone on record as advocating the break-up of these companies if their rivals are unable to compete, to reduce their influence and prevent their monopolistic dominance.
The Foundation also points to an inequality in access: 80% of Europeans are online as opposed to 22% of Africans. This gulf also reflects the high price of getting connected, which has to be made more affordable. Some studies indicate that 2 billion people live in places where Internet access is prohibitive. Another problem is the digital gender gap: in 2018 men are 33% more likely to have Internet access than women. Attacks on net neutrality are also an important factor because, the report argues, it is essential that all the traffic it carries is treated equally. Towards the dystopian end of the spectrum there is the control that a range of governments exercise on their citizens through the Internet, especially China, but also, according to the report, the US, the UK, North Korea, Turkey, Ethiopia and Mexico, among others.
Trust in the Internet is breaking down. In the US, for instance, a poll conducted by the Pew Centre shows a marked reduction in the number of people who believe the Internet to have been ‘mostly a good thing for society’. Many companies have started to become concerned about these and other negative perceptions of the tech revolution.
In an attempt to rectify what he believes to be a wrong turn taken by the web, Berners-Lee suggests a new Contract in which governments, corporations and citizens would all have responsibilities: governments by ensuring that everyone is able to connect to the Internet, that the entire Internet is available at all times and that a fundamental right to privacy is respected; companies by making the Internet affordable and accessible to everyone, respecting consumers’ privacy and personal data and developing technologies that ‘support the best in humanity and challenge the worst, so the web really is a public good that puts people first’; and citizens by being creators and collaborators on the web, building strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity (although it remains to be seen whether it is possible on the basis of anonymity) and fighting for the web to remain a global public resource.
Some 60 companies have signed up to the idea of the Contract, Google and Facebook among them. For now, these principles serve for what Berners-Lee also refers to as a ‘Magna Carta’ for the web. The task remains, however, not only of completing and pinning down their definition but especially of determining how they might be enforced. The latter is much more difficult than building a consensus around a list of good intentions; its greatest merit is to focus on an alarming situation prevailing in an Internet that is already central to our lives, despite the fact that we are often not even aware of being connected.