Ten years ago, the web was one of our most promising hopes in a challenging world. Newly armed with smartphones — and with mobile connectivity spreading across the globe — we buckled up for a decade where the web would empower citizens to change their lives and change the world for the better.
And we have seen the web and digital technology put to tremendous good.
When an earthquake devastated Haiti in the first days of 2010, people used the web and mobile phones to organise and to crowdsource maps to help those working in disaster relief efforts.
In 2011, protests starting in Tunisia swept through North Africa and the Middle East, giving hope of a future where citizens could connect and organise online to overthrow dictators and build new democratic states.
Here in the UK, Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the inventor of the web and the co-founder of the Web Foundation — appeared at the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Olympic Games, declaring “This is for Everyone” — a bold statement that the world would be freer, fairer and more open because of the power that the web put in the hands of individuals.
But 10 years later, such optimism is hard to find. Our hopes of a bright new digital world have given way to fears about how the web is being used and abused, and anxiety about the ways it is changing the fabric of our societies.
And for good reason.
When governments shut down the internet and censor legitimate speech, as they increasingly do, we’re reminded that leaders are too frequently willing to abuse their power against citizens’ interests.
When the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed in 2018, we learned the extent to which our personal information is being mined and misused to influence our opinions and behaviour.
And when we see prejudice, hate and misinformation peddled online, we’re confronted with the reality that, just as the web helps people form new connections, it can rip communities apart.
These growing online threats to our safety, our rights and our democracy mean that while once there was consensus that the web is an overwhelmingly positive force, today people are not so sure.
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the web is still an incredible force for good. By helping people access healthcare and education, by reducing unemployment and by coordinating global action on the most important issues of our time, the web continues to change billions of lives for the better.
But we’re at a tipping point. Unless we tackle the web’s challenges, we could face what Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently called a digital dystopia.
Ambitious collective action
The good news is, we can change the web and make sure it is a safe, empowering platform.
This change will require ambitious collective action to shape what is a vast, complex system run by many actors with different interests and agendas.
That’s why we launched the Contract for the Web — a global plan that sets a vision for the web we want and provides a roadmap for the policies and actions we need to get there.
This contract sets out new standards to make sure everyone can connect to all of the internet all of the time, to ensure our data is protected and to reduce online hate by strengthening community-building online.
It recognises that to build a web that serves humanity now and in the future, governments, companies and citizens must all play a role. The problems we face can’t be fixed by any one group acting alone.
Governments must lead the way in creating a digital world that allows the ingenuity and creativity of individuals to flourish. The Contract for the Web calls on policymakers to ensure that the internet is always accessible to everyone. It also demands that governments respect their citizens’ rights online and create the necessary laws and regulations to protect these rights.
Companies must build technologies that lift up the best of humanity, not elevate our darkest factions. The contract calls on them to think beyond short-term profit to consider the wider impacts of the products and services they build. It challenges business leaders to put the interests of their customers first and to build business models that don’t depend solely on monetising people’s personal information. And it asks them to commit to assessing the impact of their technology on people’s human rights and on society.
We’ll be measuring the progress of those who’ve backed the Contract for the Web
At the time of writing, over 1,000 organisations have backed the Contract for the Web, including some of the world’s biggest tech firms like Google, Twitter, Microsoft, DuckDuckGo and Facebook — along with leading digital rights organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access Now and the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. The first governments are starting to come on board and we expect to see many more in the new year.
In 2020, we’ll be measuring how these endorsers are progressing on the commitments they’ve made — and if they fail to show serious progress, we will call them out.
And while changes in the way governments and companies work are crucial, it will take effort from all of us to tackle the challenges we face and restore optimism in the web.
While bad actors online are a small minority, most of us have had regrets after sending a poorly-judged tweet, post or article. So be considerate about what you post, share and like, and be thoughtful about the online services you use. Question what you read on the web. And when you go online, bring your civility and humanity with you.
The best way to change the priorities and actions of those in power is to speak up from every corner of the world. So demand that your political representatives support a web that works for people. Choose the digital services you use carefully. And back the Contract for the Web.
We’ve spent the last decade wrestling with the web we have. Let’s start the next one fighting for the web we want. It’s a new year’s resolution worth keeping.
Adrian Lovett is the president and chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation