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Tim Berners-Lee pictured at a data privacy conference at the European Parliament last year. Photo: AP

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘contract’ to end online abuse

  • The document calls for stronger laws and regulations, companies that put democracy before profits and users to demand their ‘digital rights’
  • Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook have announced their support, as have the governments of France, Germany and Ghana
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee on Monday unveiled a “Contract for the Web” to halt “misuse” by governments, companies and individuals, bringing several capital cities and tech titans like Google aboard.

“If we don’t act now – and act together – to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide and undermine, we are at risk of squandering” its potential for good, Berners-Lee said in a statement from his World Wide Web Foundation.

Credited with laying the groundwork for the web – the universe of multimedia web pages accessible via the internet – in 1989, the computer scientist has been developing the so-called Contract for the Web since last year.

His unveiling of the final document on Monday comes as government, business and civil society leaders gather in Berlin for the four-day UN Internet Governance Forum.

Tech titans like Google have backed Berners-Lee’s plan. Photo: AP

Berners-Lee said his contract, developed in cooperation with dozens of experts and members of the public, is “a road map to build a better web”.

He called on governments to “strengthen laws and regulations” and companies “to ensure pursuit of profit is not at the expense of human rights and democracy”.

“Citizens must hold those in power accountable, demand their digital rights be respected and help foster healthy conversation online,” Berners-Lee added.

More than 150 organisations including companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Reddit and interest groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have backed the plan.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, has spoken in support of the ‘Contract for the Web’ Photo: DPA
Meanwhile, the governments of France, Germany and Ghana are on board, as are thousands of individuals.

“I will stand up for the preservation of the free internet that we have grown to know and love in recent decades,” German economy minister Peter Altmaier said in a statement ahead of the UN gathering.

Berners-Lee originally conceived the web while working at European particle physics lab CERN, as a way for scientists around the world to share information about their research.

But in recent years he has grown alarmed by abuse of the technology in society, business and politics.

The web was originally envisaged as a way for scientists around the world to share information about their research. Photo: EPA

The WWW Foundation highlighted rising cyberbullying, growing use of the web by politicians to manipulate news media and widespread online scams.

It also noted that rates of web access in emerging economies lag far behind those in industrialised nations, with 46 per cent of people worldwide not online.

“We need real and durable involvement of emerging and developing countries,” Germany’s Altmaier said. “Free access to the internet must be a fundamental, human right, valid for people around the world.”

As well as his “Contract for the Web”, Berners-Lee has looked to tackle the internet’s issues from a technical angle, in 2018 launching a development platform called “Solid” aimed at giving users control of their data.