- Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, has persuaded Google, Facebook, and the French government to sign up to a set of ethical principles.
- He also suggests breaking up these tech titans.
- The “contract” asks companies and governments to respect people’s privacy and to keep the web free.
- Berners-Lee has been hugely critical of Silicon Valley firms monopolising the web.
- He met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this year to discuss how the firm could do better, including suggesting that the social network scraps its Free Basics offering for emerging economies.
Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the web, has convinced Google and Facebook to agree to new ethical principles around respecting people’s data and privacy – while also advocating for breaking them up.
Berners-Lee and his World Wide Web Foundation are trying to pressure tech giants into behaving better through a new “contract”, a set of core principles to which he believes governments, companies, and citizens should stick.
Berners-Lee is critical of the many issues plaguing the web, and says a contract might force private firms and governments to improve the health of the web.
Speaking at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Monday, Berners-Lee said: “All kinds of things have gone wrong.
“We have problems with privacy, abuse of personal data, people can be profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads… [they can be] taken to sites where they can come across fake communities of fake people with fake ideas and fake truths. There are lots of issues with the web.”
Berners-Lee’s proposed principles include: Making the web free and accessible to everyone; respecting people’s data and privacy, and developing technologies “that support the best in humanity.” Additional principles for government and individuals include keeping the web free and available to everyone and to respect people’s fundamental right to privacy.
Apart from Facebook and Google, the World Wide Web Foundation has so far signed up the French government, as well as political figures including former UK prime minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah Brown.
World Wide Web foundation CEO Adrian Lovett told Business Insider in a call that he and Berners-Lee had met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the US earlier this year while firming up these principles.
He said the pair had criticised Facebook’s record on Free Basics, its controversial free internet service for emerging economies that some have described as digital colonialism.
“We had a discussion on a whole range issues, [such as] on Free Basics. I think they’re engaging at the top levels, and we will judge them according to their actions,” Lovett said.
He described the meeting with Zuckerberg as “cordial,” with just two other Facebook staffers in the room.
“I certainly had a strong sense… of the extraordinary weight on one individual’s shoulders, which you sense was not something he probably aspired to. It’s a remarkable responsibility, and one that he and other leaders are expected to take very seriously. At a human level, it’s hard not to empathise.”
Lovett added that the pair had not yet met with Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, but planned to later this year.
Tim Berners-Lee has battered Facebook and Google for bad behaviour
Berners-Lee has has been highly critical of Facebook and Google and their impact on the web.
He warned Reuters on Thursday about tech firms monopolising the web and said there was no alternative to “really coming in and breaking things up.” He didn’t name Google or Facebook, but it was clear he was referring to Silicon Valley firms.
Another pet project of Berners-Lee is to decentralise the web, something that would naturally involve defanging the likes of Facebook and Google, which exert a ton of influence over the internet.
The contract, Lovett said, is only the first of several stages. The idea is to turn the principles into something that the UN or the G7 might adopt, with governments and firms holding themselves accountable for sticking to the agreement.
It all sounds a little quixotic and vague, but Lovett thinks there will be tangible results. Accountability, he said, might involve an annual report that tests how different companies and governments are holding up.
“The criticism that this could just be happy-clappy would be justified if we were going to just stop next week. If we only got as far as these principles, that’s only worth so much,” he said. “The process we have at the second stage is to turn these principles into more concrete commitments… the third stage of the process would be an accountability mechanism.
“I accept you can only judge this some months down the line.”