A contract for the web

By Rachael Bowen

Today, almost 30 years after the internet was invented, we approach the point when 50% of the world’s population is connected to the web. Is it now time to consider how we build a better web for the future? Sir Tim Berners-Lee certainly thinks so. He used his opening talk at Web Summit 2018 to launch his #ForTheWeb campaign. He says that the free and open web is facing real challenges. More than half of the world’s population still are not online. For the other half, the web’s benefits seem to come with far too many risks: to our privacy, our democracy, even our mental health. He calls for the internet to be affordable and accessible to all, to develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst and to respect peoples’ fundamental right to privacy.

In May 2018, the GDPR came into force across Europe, a legislation that was created to give us citizens greater ownership of our data and more power to control it. But ask yourself, since then, do you really feel any greater control over your data? Or are you simply annoyed by the proliferation of new pop-ups demanding permission from you before you can get to the website you were trying to visit?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is behind another exciting new project; Solid, with which he aims to radically change the way web applications work, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. Solid (derived from “social linked data”) is a set of tools for building decentralised social applications. By decoupling data from the applications that use it, Solid will put the ownership of that data back in the hands of the individual in a way that GDPR has not managed so far. Giving the individual complete control over their data and who they share it with.

Over recent years blockchain technology has created the backbone of a new type of internet – not just for the digital currency Bitcoin, but also branching out into other areas. Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain. Because the blockchain database isn’t stored in any single location, the records it keeps are truly public and easily verifiable, its data is accessible to anyone on the internet. It’s not controlled by any central authority and has no single point of failure making it transparent and incorruptible. But for blockchain to achieve mainstream consumer adoption the technical terminology needs to be simplified and the barriers removed. Just as most internet users don’t need to fully understand the TCP/IP layer of the internet, so the user experience of Blockchain technology needs to be the focus.  Holly Liu from Y Combinator says we can expect to see it hit the mainstream in 7- 10 years.

In his Web summit talk, the Cambridge Analytica whistle blower Christopher Wylie suggested that more regulation of the internet is needed – and he questions if our current politicians and police forces are equipped to do it. He says that if we can regulate nuclear power we should be able to regulate lines of code. Like Berners-Lee, he believes we need to give due consideration to the impact of things we build. Should there be an ethical code of conduct for data scientists as there is for members of the medical profession?

The web started out as a way to bring people together and to share information. Now as citizens of the web we need to stand together to make sure the web of the future serves humanity and remains a basic right for everyone.

Join the fight for the web here: https://fortheweb.webfoundation.org/

Embrace the Blockchain
Featuring Holly Liu, Peter Guglielmino and Sam Yam.

Your Privacy is Compromised
Christopher Wylie, speaks to Krishnan Guru Murthy about the biggest threats to our personal data