Regulating the World Wide Web a worthy but unrealistic proposal
On a regular March day 30 years ago, the World Wide Web was invented. It came from a simple internal search for methods to help scientists collaborate while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.
What no one knew then is that Tim Berners-Lee had launched one of the key components that would usher our world into a new era — the digital, super-connected world that we live in today.
Thirty years ago, Berners-Lee was anxious about information management, specifically how a big family of scientists at CERN could make their research documents available without having to print them out or copy them on to a floppy disk.
Fast forward to today and the web has become part of our everyday routine, with iPhones, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon, telephone banking and cashless societies all becoming possible thanks to a paper Berners-Lee wrote. Was he aware of the unlimited scope that paper would offer the world, its progress and services to humanity? That invention carried within its folds the good, the bad and even the ugly.
Having lived through the pre-Internet era and then learned to cope with this tool that has facilitated my work as a journalist for three decades, I am not a person that ever feels at ease with technology, constant connectivity and its many addictions.
Society and, for that matter, the state is only now grappling to understand how to benefit from the digital age and how to rule it instead of ending up being ruled by it. Many think it is too late and the web, out of control like a runaway train, has already transformed society and the world will have to adapt as a result.
Thirty years on from his breakthrough, Berners-Lee wrote an open letter reflecting on exactly how his invention had impacted the world. He said that “while the web has created opportunity and given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given voice to those who spread hatred and made all kind of crimes easier to commit.”
Berners-Lee divided the web’s problems in a way that we have all thought about but failed to articulate. The first was “deliberate malicious intent” related to hacking and other criminal behavior; second was “system design that creates perverse incentives,” such as ad-based revenue models that try to manipulate our preferences to maximize the return of greedy corporations; and finally the “unintended consequences of system design,” such as the immediate impact of polarized debate on social cohesion.
I cannot imagine anymore a world without the net, but the web at 30 is different to what Tim Berners-Lee envisaged in 1989.
His call for a “contract for the web,” or a Jean-Jacques Rousseau-style “Contrat Social,” which would create a new framework of laws and standards to be adhered to in a similar manner to the world’s loose adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is to be commended.
Reading his open letter, one could never doubt Berners-Lee’s resolve and desire for his invention to be regulated and serve, as intended, as a peaceful collaboration between people, companies, corporations and countries on a global scale.
Despite his good intent, the world today lacks humanists of his ilk.
Facebook did not mind harvesting data on the fringes of its social networking tools to sell on to the corporate world. Though we have adapted to ask Google for everything, no one knows the size or limit of what Google does with the files that we have trustingly agreed to hand over to its virtual storage clouds.
Calls for the break-up of these huge corporations have fallen on deaf ears and plans for a digital tax in the most advanced Western societies like Europe were scrapped due to lobbying and corporation power.
On the world stage, the web that China wants for its citizens will never resemble the one Americans browse. And multilateralism is maybe today in its darkest moment, so I doubt the world is likely to rally behind Berners-Lee’s regulatory advice.
In such a polarized world, one would think it unfeasible to dream of regulation as per Berners-Lee’s vision, which starts with the premise that “the web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it if we dream a little and work hard.”
I want to be an optimist and see the world through this pioneer’s prism, but my day job following news and discord the world over makes me reticent.
I cannot imagine anymore a world without the net, but the web at 30 is different to what Berners-Lee envisaged in 1989. In 2019, the World Wide Web controls our destiny and it is not wrong to seek to regulate it to protect this major tool from excess criminality, corporate greed and communal use that indirectly silences others.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.