A New Contract #ForTheWeb at 30

Tim Berners Lee’s post to mark the 30th Anniversary of his proposal for the web and the work he highlights on a new “Contract for the Web” make thought-provoking reading.

I’ve somehow missed the #ForTheWeb effort so far, but it’s a subject close to my heart. The web has been an incredible driver for good in many ways. 30years on it is genuinely difficult to imagine life without it. On the other hand, it has also evolved continuously and it is hard not to worry that we risk losing some of its openness, and worse that it could get used for more ill than good in some circumstances.

Everybody should take a look at the Contract for the Web both from the perspective of an individual citizen and from the perspective of any organizations you are involved with. The statements in the contract seem obvious, but not as easy as they seem to stick to. They also reflect a set of priorities which are best described as “the common interest” which we actively have to work to maintain since it isn’t always in the economic or political interest of any single corporation or individual to abide by them.

Challenges and Principles for the Web

In his post, Tim Berners Lee highlights three broad sources of dysfunction in the web today (quoting):

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

I would agree with all three of these worries, but I’d add a fourth and fifth which I talk about below.

The #ForTheWeb project proposes a new social contract for the web that consists of the following pledges (quoting):

Governments Will

  • Ensure everyone can connect to the internet so that anyone, no matter who they are or where they live, can participate actively online.
  • Keep all of the internet available, all of the time so that no one is denied their right to full internet access.
  • Respect people’s fundamental right to privacy so everyone can use the internet freely, safely and without fear.

Companies Will

  • Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone so that no one is excluded from using and shaping the web.
  • Respect consumers’ privacy and personal data so people are in control of their lives online.
  • Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst so the web really is a public good that puts people first.

Citizens Will

  • Be creators and collaborators on the web so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.
  • Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.
  • Fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.

These are great principles and also are set at a good level abstraction. They are detailed enough to say something meaningful without being overly prescriptive on how things should be achieved. You can follow the project and get updates from the website here. There has also been initial support from some of the web’s major companies. See an extensive list here.

This is a great start but it will be a significant journey. It’s worth working through them to see if your organization fully supports all these principles. If so, consider asking them to sign the pledge and engage in iterating on the detailed text. You can also sign up as an individual.

Having said all this, there are a few things about the principles which are worth digging a little deeper into.

Creation

The ability to create content, applications, and experiences on the web will be critical to keeping it open. This is mentioned in the text in the “Company” pledges:

and in the “Citizen” pledges:

This ability to create is critical and is a little too easy to miss in the current writing of the pledge for my taste. The harder it is to create content and applications and be recognized for them, the poorer the web will be. In this regard there are arguably two conflicting trends underway:

  1. Positive — the increasing number of simple web creation platforms. The last 5–10 years have seen tremendous growth in simple point-and-click platforms for publishing content (Blogger, WordPress, Medium, …), personal websites (Wix, Squarespace, …), eCommerce sites (Shopify) and much more. There has also been an explosion of content channels that enable non-technical users to build an audience. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube all play this role. In many ways, it has never been easier for non-technical users to publish content.
  2. Negative — technical complexity and network effects put the creation of the best experiences out of reach. The advent of mobile applications, mobile web browsing, and the complexity of the latest technologies for creating web experiences put creating genuinely novel experiences well beyond the reach of most non-technical users. This is a far cry from the relatively level playing field of the early web. More important than this though is that very many of the successful web businesses have built nearly powerful moats around their services that mean they can barely be challenged by anyone. These moats include the network effects created by millions of connected users, access to the usage data of these users and tremendous economies of scale. Increasingly, these giant companies define the platforms, channels, and marketplaces of the web in a way that means building up new platforms, channels and markets is impossible.

Part of the network effect power of the largest Internet companies is earned and there is no doubt that it can also be used for good. These same quasi-monopolies also allow new experimentation that might not otherwise be possible. As the level of concentration rises though, the rate of breakthrough new Internet platforms has slowed dramatically in recent years creating the risk of stifling behaviour.

Diverse Curation and Filtering

The second area that seems highly critical to the long term health of the web is enabling more diverse curation and filtering of content. More specifically the need for many diverse ways of slicing and dicing the content available, no matter how obscure.

This point is not directly addressed in the pledges, except perhaps implicitly in the pledge for a web that is an open, global public resource:

The reason for highlighting curation and filtering is that it is not enough to be able to create content or applications on the web. Creating experiences is only half the battle. The other half is getting the attention of those that could benefit from the content or experiences: distribution.

In today’s Internet, there are only a small number of “strong tidal flows” of attention that can lead to content or an application getting attention. These are: search via one of 2–3 search engines, getting pick up in social media algorithms on one of the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter), recognition by influencers of one kind or another (journalists, social media tastemakers and so on), and last not but least paid advertising on one or more of the major platforms.

In today’s web thankfully it is still more or less possible to stand out with excellent content or applications without necessarily investing heavily in paid options. Remarkable offerings do get recognized and knowledge about them spreads. However, it is already very challenging to pull off and there is a significant danger that the large Internet platforms most users use (Facebook, Google, Amazon, …) could squeeze these informal viral channels. This is because they conflict with their business models in a general sense: if good content spreads by itself, then why pay Facebook or Google to spread it?

Today’s large platforms will always be part of the mix (and that’s a good thing). However, I’d argue we need more diverse and larger numbers of ways of curating and filtering that are unrelated to the platforms. The more different ways there are to slice and dice what’s available on the web, the more chance there is users can find slices that work for them and the more chance there is novel interest will get noticed.

Having a diversity of mechanisms will hopefully also allow us to evolve some which regain some of the trust in shared facts which is very hard to find today.

Conclusions

ForTheWeb is a great initiative and I highly recommend taking a look. Considering bringing the principles to your employer and discuss what everybody subscribes to.

The principles laid out are already a great start but we also need to keep up the march on the technical side to find better and more diverse solutions for content/application creation and for surfacing content.

#ForTheWeb

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash


Originally published at area67.org on March 17, 2019.