Tim Berners-Lee Wants to Save the Internet

27 November, 2019

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, says the web "has changed the world for good and improved the lives of billions." But he adds that many people still have no internet access. And access comes with very high costs, including loss of privacy, misinformation, state-sponsored attacks and other criminal acts.

This week, Berners-Lee released a "Contract for the Web." The action plan is designed to save the web. The contract was a yearlong effort by the World Wide Web Foundation, where Berners-Lee is a founding director. The contract seeks commitments from governments, companies and citizens to make and keep information freely available.

Contract for the Web

British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, delivers a speech during an event at the CERN in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday March 12, 2019 marking 30 years of World Wide Web. (Fabrice Coffrini/Po
British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, delivers a speech during an event at the CERN in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday March 12, 2019 marking 30 years of World Wide Web. (Fabrice Coffrini/Po

Berners-Lee said, "This is the first time we've had a rule book in which responsibility is being shared."

The contract says governments must make sure everyone can connect to the web. It also says governments need to "keep all of the internet available, all of the time." And it asks governments to respect and protect people's privacy and data rights.

For companies, the contract says they have the responsibility to make the internet low-cost enough for everyone to use it. It says companies also must respect people's privacy and data rights. And, it says companies should be developing technologies that "support the best in humanity and challenge the worst."

Private citizens also play a part. The contract urges them to be "creators and collaborators of the web." It says citizens should build strong and respectful online communities. And it says citizens should fight for the web to remain open.

The contract is non-binding, however. Its partners and financial supporters include Google and Facebook. The two companies have been criticized for creating a toxic online environment with its business models.

Internet giants' business model

Amnesty International recently released a report charging that Google and Facebook's business model threatens human rights. It says, "the companies' surveillance-based business model is...incompatible with the right to privacy." The report also says the business model threatens other rights, including "freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination."

Berners-Lee said of Facebook and Google, "having them is the room is really important."

He said, "We feel that companies and governments deserve equal seats at the table and understanding where they're coming from is equally valuable."

Other major financial supporters of the foundation include the Swedish and German international development agencies, the Ford Foundation and Omidyar network.

Governments' role in internet access

The Contract for the Web asks governments to make sure "everyone can connect to the internet." But some governments have increased their control over internet access.

Just this month, Iran shut down the internet and limited communications with the outside world, following huge protests over rising gasoline prices. And last month, Iraq blocked its citizens from going online in answer to a massive anti-government movement.

The Keep It On coalition reports that there were over 180 internet shutdowns across 25 countries in 2018. Most of the countries were in Asia and Africa.

Digital divide

In its first-ever Digital Economy Report, the United Nations warned that inequality will worsen unless the international community addresses the so-called "digital divide." That is the divide between under-connected and highly connected countries.

The report says the United States and China create a large majority of their wealth in the digital economy. The two countries own as much as 90 percent of the market value of the world's 70 largest digital companies.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in the report's introduction, "We must work to close the digital divide, where more than half the world has limited, or no access to the Internet. Inclusivity is essential to building a digital economy that delivers for all."

The Contract for the Web asks users to take an active role to save the web. It suggests users strongly oppose the weaponization of the web by nation states and support companies that fight for human rights and the public good.

What would success look like?

Berners-Lee says he will consider the contract a success when "a critical mass of governments and companies have put the right laws...and policies in place to create an open and empowering web for all."

He added that success would mean "most people communicate positively and respectfully online."

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English based on an Associated Press story, the Contract for the Web and other reports. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

access – n. permission or ability to enter or pass through

toxic adj. containing poisonous material

non-binding - adj. not officially requiring that you do something : not able to be enforced by law

surveillance – n. close watch kept over someone or something

incompatible adj. not both true; conflicting

seat at the table - expression. a position as a member of a group that makes decisions

essential adj. being important or necessary