Ideas Berners-Lee’s “Web Contract”

We will not save the Web by colluding with its enemies

Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web’s inventor, has written a “contract for the Web” which aims to save the network from the abuses threatening it. But his effort is supported by the same big tech firms that are already hard at work undermining all the document’s founding principles.

Published on 10 December 2019 at 07:00

Tim Berners-Lee's latest crusade to save the Web leaves a bitter taste.

The man who was first to denounce the suffocating threat of what he called "walled gardens" now intends to offer their owners a "contract". A contract that would also involve governments and citizens. A contract vague enough to have no contractual value. And so a contract immediately approved, supported and signed by... Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft.

If we want to save the Web it will not be done with those who have methodically undermined all the Web’s founding principles.

In April 1993, four years after inventing the Web, Berners-Lee made his great gift to humanity: he decided to put the invention in the public domain. That the Web has been so successful, that it has revolutionized information, social relationships, knowledge, is first and foremost because it was placed in the public domain. The technical architecture, the communication protocols, the document formats: no one could subsequently claim private ownership over this network and infrastructure, or its accumulated content.

And yet what is killing the Web today is precisely its preemption by private actors, known in Europe as Gafam (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and Natu (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla, Uber), or in China as BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi).

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What is killing the Web today is the privatization of something its inventor bequeathed to us in 1993, in a deliberate political act, as the common property of humanity.

What is killing the Web today is the extinction of the public part of the Web's usage, the public part of its language and its technical architecture.

Today we can expect no more help from the Gafam. They have become capitalist corporations like any others, seeking only profits and rents, striving only for endless speculation on a market in which they are both the actors and the regulators.

Just as clothes don't make the man, open-plan offices filled with foosball tables and pastel beanbags do not make virtue or ethics.

Facebook is a mortal danger to our democracies, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed. Google uses 1930s-style anti-union methods to silence internal contestation. On all these platforms the fight against hate speech is something of an extrajudicial sham: in reality, the toxic technical architecture of the platforms thrives on the tendency to speculation and one-upmanship inherent in such speech. 

All these companies hide behind a cult of the algorithm as an alibi for their fraudulent manipulations to prioritize or invisibilize speech, both public and private. All these companies subcontract the moderation of their most abhorrent content to poor employees working in poor conditions on the other side of the world. And let us not forget the reality of dehumanized working conditions in Amazon's warehouses across Europe and the United States.

And what about the return to the 19th-century model of piecework (the so-called gig economy) and its working poor? Must we point out that all these companies are tax-exempt in proportions and forms that amount to mass organized fraud? It is with their help that we hope to save the Web, when every day they distort its function and trammel its ambition? And with a contract that demands no commitments to saving the Web other than wanting to?

To save the Web we do not need a contract. We need an independent index (of pages, profiles and the like), which might help rehabilitate the public part of our interactions in a non-market commons.

To save the Web we do not need a contract. We need strong and binding public regulation, ready if necessary to dismantle these calculating behemoths, and ready to pronounce anew that their code will never be our law.

To save the Web we do not need a contract, but rather a struggle. "Algorithms" are nothing more than human decisions in the service of predetermined moral and political values. We must fight to ensure that these algorithms are transparent to inspection, robust against all manipulation, and predictable for those they govern. As numerous specialists have described, and as all defenders of digital freedoms are now demanding.

From the architect of the Web’s emancipatory promise we might have expected something other than a nebulous contract to soothe the consciences of companies which predate on our rights and freedoms. We might have expected Tim Berners-Lee to continue denouncing the perpetrators, rather than provide them with a convenient alibi. A negotiating table does not belong on a trading floor. As long as it stays there the Web will continue to die.

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