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28 November 2019

Berners-Lee’s web plea lacks serious support

The newest collaborative effort to establish consensus among internet authorities has been snubbed by many major companies. Spearheaded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Contract for the Web encourages the protection of data privacy and pursuit of widening access to the internet.

There are certainly some big names in the contract’s list of support, notably Google, Facebook and Microsoft. But it is impossible not to notice a gaping hole left by Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Hulu and the many other leading OTT service providers, not to mention the major ISPs regularly making headlines in Faultline.

It’s no surprise in many senses. These companies are sick of external regulation regarding their conduct with user data, a resource without which their businesses cannot operate. GDPR regulation has placed massive strain on operations in the EU, while the big four (Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook) saw antitrust investigations earlier this year in the US. Why sign up to such a contract unless forced to do so?

The contract is split into 9 ‘principles’ which apply to governments, companies and citizens, although there is much overlap between them. The two issues which are consistently highlighted are privacy and accessibility.

One request of the document is that companies are warranted and transparent in the ways they handle data. One suggested means of achieving this is regular scrutiny of companies’ data processing mechanisms, both internal and external. Within companies, there should be “regular and pro-active data processing impact assessments” ensuring all data collection is for “explicit and legitimate processes”.

Externally, companies should support independent research on how “user interfaces and design patterns influence privacy outcomes”, as well as “independent complaints mechanisms” to provide free channels of redress for breaches of data rights, says the contract.

Furthermore, the contract argues individuals have a right to data portability, which companies should uphold by pushing for industry-wide data standards. This is part of a wider process which the contract dubs “investing in and supporting the digital commons” – essentially encouraging companies to support web standards, “interoperability, open source technologies, open access, open knowledge, and open data practises and values”.

But standardized, open source technologies do not necessarily lead to greater privacy. For example, earlier this year we covered Livepeer, pitched as a decentralized encoding start-up providing video infrastructure services via the open source blockchain-based computing platform Ethereum. Yet this technology often compromises digital privacy because data is overseen by a self-governed, decentralized group of guardians.

The contract also argues that web users should always be able to “obtain a copy of all personal data undergoing processing by an entity” so long as it does not infringe upon the freedoms of others. Consumers should then be able to withdraw or erase any data about themselves, as well as have the power to rectify any data which they deem incorrect.

As online privacy has increasingly become an issue of intense public interest and scrutiny, so too has it become a talking point with which companies can knife one another. As such, it is often weaponized by companies vying to compete with the big four.

Take the recent spat between Comcast and Google. Just last month, Comcast accused Google of waiving privacy concerns to hinder its video ad tech arm FreeWheel from selling ads on YouTube. Perhaps Google is hoping that support of the contract can wipe that slate clean.

The other major area of concern expressed by the Contract is accessibility. Principles 1 and 2 argue that governments should “ensure everyone can connect to the internet” and that they should “keep all of the internet available, all of the time”, respectively.

As for companies, the contract demands “corporate policies that minimize access barriers” to the internet. One remedy for this is pursuing diversity, be that in their own workforce, or their customer base, “so that no one is excluded from using and shaping the web”.

Services provided should be in local languages and formatted in ways that will be easily interpreted, and companies should establish “effective channels for consultation” both during and after development of technologies to ensure they accommodates the “rights and interests of the full breadth of communities”.

The contract also aims to achieve wide ranging accessibility to the internet by demanding that companies invest in infrastructure that opens internet access. One suggestion is that providers work towards “symmetric upload/download speeds to facilitate the work of online creators and the use of interactive applications”.

Furthermore, the contract argues that privacy policies and rights should be “equally available to everyone”. One demand is that all companies must provide “clear explanations of processes affecting users’ data” and easily operable control panels for data and privacy settings. These should be easily understood by all groups in society.

Perhaps more helpful is the suggestion of “multi-stakeholder forums” to collectively moderate “content take-down” i.e. governments alone cannot decide what is censored.

Calls for accessibility go as far as setting mobile data costs – the contract advises that 1GB should cost 2% of a nation’s average monthly income by 2025, as well as setting broadband accessibility and ICT skills education targets.

This is required by both financial commitments regarding internet costs, as well as infrastructure commitments. The contract encourages governments to pursue passive infrastructure sharing, dig-once regulations and “open access rules on wholesale infrastructure in non-competitive areas”.

Aside from individual access to the internet, the contract concerns itself with censorship. Principle 2 asks that governments “keep all of the internet available, all of the time”. This aims to stop governments arbitrarily censoring parts of their internet at their own discretion.

With regards to governments, the contract makes demands that are too flimsy to genuinely pressure more authoritarian nations into freeing up the web. For instance, the vague plea for governments to “ensure that any attempts to restrict access to the internet are necessary and rely on means that are proportionate to achieving a legitimate end”. It’s hard to imagine any government doubting that their goals are “legitimate”, and the contract provides no further guidance as to what is or isn’t.

Equally, with privacy, the contract argues that governments’ use of “private communications and data” should be “necessary, lawful and proportionate to the aim pursued” as well as compliant with human rights norms. This demand is slightly more concrete, arguing that any such action should be limited in both time and legality by an independent judiciary.

Given his status, it was no surprise to see Berners-Lee’s plea to the internet pass through the obstacle course of scrutiny without so much as a scratch, yet our point is that the omission of mammoth names from the support list is as good as direct criticism.