This week the Internet turned 25 years old. In this post-Snowden and not-so-net-neutral era, some might argue the World Wide Web’s fate no longer rests in the world’s hands. But with 60 percent of the population still offline, change is coming — and the inventor of the Web wants to ensure it’s the good kind.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Internet, is pushing for a digital Magna Carta through an initiative called the Web We Want. “On the 25th birthday of the web, I ask you to join in—to help us imagine and build the future standards for the web, and to press for every country to develop a digital bill of rights to advance a free and open web for everyone,” Berners-Lee wrote in a guest post on Google’s official blog.
At CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, Berners-Lee submitted a proposal in 1989 outlining a system that would become the World Wide Web. A quarter of a century later, he’s asking people to help shape the web in the world’s image. The Web We Want Campaign aims to match the modern Internet up with the ideals purported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Freedom of speech and belief and freedom from want and fear,” according to the campaign’s website. The project advocates for affordable access to a ubiquitous communications platform; personal user information protection and the right to private communications; freedom of expression; neutral networks; and diverse, decentralized and open infrastructure.
The initiative offers aid by way of grants to those promoting the free and open Internet. It also leverages public education and joint mobilization efforts, according to the site. And though the project provides guidelines and an origin point from which to launch campaigns, it seems to stress its role as a catalyst rather than the movement’s leader. Berners-Lee and the Web We Want emphasize bottom-up evolution rather than top-down revolution. The campaign provides information on what individuals can do to create the Web we all want; one option includes drafting an original bill of rights for one’s country. In this way, the project aims to crowd-source plans for the future of the Internet.
Berners-Lee outlines obstacles ahead, such as ensuring the Internet reaches every person, everywhere in coming years and in establishing guidelines around data collection.
Some say large corporations could hamper the spread of the free and open Web. Rules around net neutrality used to ensure that Internet Service Providers couldn’t muddle user experience with interference or preference. With net neutrality, “everybody’s website gets the same speed and quality,” alleges a video by the Free Press — meaning providers can’t pick favorites by delivering content faster to some. But an American federal court struck down strictures the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had instituted to guarantee an open Internet. While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says tougher rules could follow, corporations now have legislative wiggle room to seal off parts of the Internet.
Meanwhile, more lax net neutrality rules could also allow corporations to see data on users, while NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed last year just how much information the government knows about individuals. From U.S. citizens, right up the ladder to foreign allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have reportedly had their phones tapped by the agency. The Internet is a breeding ground for data, as it is a place where people broadcast their thoughts on social platforms and communicate with others, but lends itself to blurred lines between what’s private and public. Tensions rise when users discover information they thought was theirs now belongs to Uncle Sam, or even corporations looking to sell data to advertisers.
A digital bill of rights demanding the right to privacy could act as a watchdog protecting individuals against big brands and Big Brother. Right now, the likes of Edward Snowden have some arguing 2014 looks a lot like 1984, but grassroots activism up to national action could help redraw privacy lines in a digital age. Berners-Lee emphasizes the Internet is for everyone — therefore, it’s also everyone’s responsibility.