Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web in 1989, and now he’s helping governments – and citizens – control it. Trolls, misinformation, and harmful content are creating a toxic environment that aids violent actors, such as terrorists and white supremacists, and endangers the internet’s free and open nature.
France was the first government to sign his new pledge, promising to safeguard internet access, protect rights online, such as keeping people free from harassment, and keep harmful material out, such as illegal content and terrorist material.
While at the Web Summit in Portugal, nicknamed “the Davos for geeks,” Berners-Lee told Politico “I don’t regret creating the web,” but added that “a couple of years ago, I realized there was a change of attitudes. We can’t assume connectivity will inevitably lead to more understanding.”
To that end, the World Wide Web Foundation published a manifesto urging governments and companies to boost connectivity, but also give individuals greater control over their personal data. This call reflects a wider sea change among governments and lawmakers who are pushing for restrictions on a currently anarchic internet ecosystem. However, different laws in different states could cause a fracturing, or “splinternet,” while tech giants like Facebook and Google are under fire due to recent scandals concerning the misuse of users’ data. Already, the internet is heavily censored in some countries, which limits global connectivity and freedom of information, such as in Russia and China. On the other side, unfettered anarchy allows violent actors freedom to organize and disseminate malicious material.
While France is the first country to sign on, 57 other organizations, including Google and Facebook, have also joined in. By leading the way, France is hoping to encourage other countries to sign up. Together, they have pledged to work together over the next 6 months to draw up proposals aimed at implementing the goals of the Berners-Lee’s pledge. Ultimately, the result will be a sort of contract for the web, to be unveiled in spring 2019.
There is common ground concerning the removal of malicious material and letting people control their own data, but a lot of disagreement remains over how the internet should be regulated, especially concerning the role of tech giants in society and restrictions on government surveillance. Finding such compromises could be tricky, especially since signatories who do not uphold their pledges may face retaliation.
Mr. Mahjoubi said “We will collaborate to push forward progress, and may sanction if the transgressions are serious.”
What remains clear, however, is that France’s decision to sign on so early was well timed. The country seeks to welcome tech companies and startups, but also seeks to impose regulation on large tech companies, including potentially levying taxes on revenues that are generated from digital services. Getting in early could give France the edge to push such policies beyond their borders.
The future of the internet remains in flux. However, it is clear that both governments and tech companies are starting to pay attention to the needs of consumers. Those needs require a careful balance between freedom from surveillance and data-snooping, but also protection from malicious actors.