Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has been trying to fix his creation for quite a few years now, particularly following the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass online surveillance. However, the task has taken on renewed urgency.
Countries are increasingly shutting down the Internet during elections or protests. Last month, Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation also found a dramatic slowdown in the Internet’s growth, with rural populations and women disproportionately excluded from the online revolution.
So Berners-Lee and his foundation have launched a new “Contract for the Web,” and they’ve managed to get the likes of Facebook and Google to sign up to principles surrounding affordable access and consumer privacy.
“Those of us who are online are seeing our rights and freedoms threatened. We need a new Contract for the Web, with clear and tough responsibilities for those who have the power to make it better,” said Berners-Lee in a statement.
The contract is light on details right now, but it will be fleshed out ahead of full publication in May next year—a milestone moment when half the world’s population is expected to be online. The year 2019 also marks the Web’s 30th anniversary.
Facebook and Google certainly have every reason to want more people to go online, as that will expand their addressable markets. On the privacy front, those companies have had their fair share of scandals in the last year—most notably Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica debacle—but the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is forcing them to take data privacy more seriously too.
It’s worth noting that the launch of the contract comes days after Berners-Lee said the giants may need to be broken up due to over-concentration in the tech sphere—although he also said innovation and shifting tastes could produce the same result.
The French government is on board with the contract, as is billionaire Richard Branson. Amazon, a rising competitor to Facebook and Google in the data-hungry online advertising market, has reportedly not signed up to the new initiative.
“Each party is going to have to commit to solidifying and living by some values, tweaking the way they work and increasing their trustability and the extent to which they trust other people,” Berners-Lee told CNET at the Web Summit in Lisbon. “We’re not expecting anyone to do it out of altruism. We’re expecting them to do it out of collaboration.”