First announced at the end of last year, the Contract for the Web includes nine principles with three-a-piece set aside for governments, companies and citizens.  Picture: AP
First announced at the end of last year, the Contract for the Web includes nine principles with three-a-piece set aside for governments, companies and citizens. Picture: AP

Contract to make the web less of a cesspool

By Charlie Stewart Time of article published Dec 5, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG - When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web back in 1989, the world was a different place. 

The Berlin Wall would fall later that year, while Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison only the next. There was no talk yet of Google, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon.

Whether Berners-Lee imagined that his invention would become the cornerstone of so much of modern life is up for debate. However, it’s fair to say that back then Berners-Lee might have been naïve about the future of the world wide web as a force for good.

Rife with fake news, enclaves of echo chambers, stolen or exposed personal information and unwanted surveillance, the world wide web is indeed a “digital dystopia”, in no small part thanks to companies worshipping the dollar and governments trying to cement control.

Good then that Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation have now officially launched the Contract for the Web, a certain step in the right direction to make the web less of a cesspool.

First announced at the end of last year, the Contract for the Web includes nine principles with three-a-piece set aside for governments, companies and citizens.

These include governments’ commitment to keep the internet available at all times; companies’ pledge to protect people’s privacy and personal data; and citizens’ responsibility in fighting for the web as an open resource.

Already endorsed by more than 160 organisations, the Contract for the Web is an initiative that's long overdue, which is desperately needed. However, it’s also easy to be sceptical about it.

Three of the companies whose logos are proudly displayed as supporters of the contract include Facebook, Google and now also Twitter. This has raised some eyebrows, and rightfully so.

With Twitter’s recent efforts to ban all forms of political advertisement, there is a sense that it is perhaps better aligned to the tenets of the Contract for the Web. However, one cannot say the same of Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to be more than happy to fulfil the role of super villain, not concerned to run political ads - whether these are truthful or not - among the company's many infractions.

Google’s slate isn’t clean either, receiving fines from the EU regarding antitrust matters and advertising violations.

Privacy concerns and helping China censor the web are further issues that make one wonder how much of the company's famed “Don’t be evil” motto still rings true.

It can be argued that this a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, since it’s best to have the likes of Facebook and Google a part of the conversation (Amazon is notably absent from the contract). That said, this brings up the matter of the punitive measures in place to get signees to toe the line.

The Guardian reports that those who endorse the contract must indeed demonstrate that they are making an effort to fulfil the principles. Abrogate these duties and they face the harsh punishment of, well, being kicked off the list of endorsers.

While it’s easy to criticise the Contract for the Web, what Berners-Lee has managed to do is highly commendable. The contract can be seen as a blueprint of behaviour, a digital Nine Commandments that must be adhered to lest we face a future where the web is far less free and far more oppressive.

As it stands now, the contract is not the destination, rather the first few steps required in a long journey in fixing the web. And with the web an inseparable part of modernity, it could just be the first step needed in fixing the world.

Charlie Stewart is the chief executive of Rogerwilco.

BUSINESS REPORT 

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