Thirty years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for what would become the world wide web. Now, for many reasons, the man widely credited with inventing the web is less than thrilled with how we’ve treated it in the intervening decades.
“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised [sic] groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” Berners-Lee wrote today in an open letter commemorating the web’s anniversary.
With a seemingly endless parade of scandals and breaches, revelations of data mining and substandard working conditions enabled by the internet, succumbing to the notion that the web’s legacy is one of long, slow decline would be forgivable—but Berners-Lee cautions against defeatism. “If we give up on building a better web now,” he writes, “then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”
“This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit,” he writes, probably in reference to the various open letters from workers pushing against military projects like Google’s involvement in Project Maven and Microsoft working with the Pentagon to develop the HoloLens for training soldiers, as well as a groundswell of opposition to enabling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to carry out its brutal natalist agenda.
Creating a “Contract for the Web” is the thrust of Berners-Lee’s retrospective analysis, a concept he launched last November. The contract lists nine tenets, three aimed and governments, three at companies, and an additional three for web users themselves. Some, like state-enabled universal internet access, are benevolent but perhaps idealistic.
While still in its infancy and likely subject to change, Berners-Lee’s ideas on how companies could build a more beneficial internet, unfortunately, seem totally detached from the reality we currently live in. “Make the internet affordable” is generally part of what made the ad-supported model of the web so popular, and led to the mass data collection that makes Facebook and Google so wealthy—and is fundamentally at odds with Berners-Lee’s very next commandment to “Respect consumers’ privacy and personal data.” Asking online platforms to “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”—again, a thing that would definitely be better and healthier—runs counter to Facebook’s assertion that “no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average.”
Though specifically referencing his own contract, he is right that we’ve reached an inflection point in “our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future,” where consumers, tech workers, and many legislators are all in relative agreement that more expansive control over the web and the greater internet is necessary, whether in the form of user safety, data privacy legislation, or the pursuit of antitrust cases against the biggest firms born of Berners-Lee’s invention.
Whether the Contract for the Web will be the “guiding star” it’s intended to be is less relevant than knowing the web’s father remains invested in seeing his creation finally grow the hell up.