Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: 'We've lost control of our data, it is being used against us'

Why can't we all go back to being nice to each other, like in the Usenet and IRC days, er, wait...


Comment The Web Foundation is warning about the death of the web again, and urging people to come together to make the internet all nice and lovely.

"The World Wide Web is under threat," a 19-page hippie manifesto [PDF] published by the pro-WWW group warned on Monday. "We've lost control of our personal data and that data is being weaponised against us." That's not all, either.

"The power to access news and information from around the globe is being manipulated by malicious actors," it rails. "Online harassment is rampant, and governments are increasingly censoring information online - or shutting down the internet altogether."

Before it gets too depressed though, the Web Foundation remembers its core goal: to talk about how great its founder and director Sir Tim Berners-Lee is. "As we approach nearly 30 years of the World Wide Web, we still have much to celebrate. In the short time since its creation by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the web has transformed our lives. It has allowed billions across the globe to connect, communicate and create, and has leveraged…"

Whatever. But no, it's not finished – far from it.

"As a young physicist at CERN, Sir Tim saw that valuable information was being trapped within institutions… Sir Tim gave the technology of the web to the world for free."

It even pull-quotes Sir Tim in Sir Tim's own publication. "If we spend a certain amount of time using the internet we have to spend a little proportion of that time defending it, worrying about it, looking out for it… Do me a favour, fight for it for me." — Sir Tim Berners-Lee (2014)

The cult of Sir Tim certainly shows no signs of slowing up, especially after Sir Tim stared down a claim on his noblesse oblige when he gave the thumbs-up to including digital rights management as a web standard.

But is there something to the new and lengthy manifesto that is pushing the hashtag #ForTheWeb? (whatever happened to #TheWebWeWant? – Ed)

Well, yes and no.

Boo! Rubbish!

It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality's a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential.

That hasn't stopped the shy Sir Tim from doing a bout of media interviews, however, in order to focus attention on it. He is at the Web Summit in Lisbon this week to launch the report and he's been complaining for a few days about it was much better in his day.

Sadly, all the proposed fixes are as vanilla, squishy and well known as the problems. There is a "contract for the web" at the end of the document that reads like a listicle of other, sharper analyses.

"We are encouraging governments, companies and citizens around the world to commit to these principles, and to help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone," it calls out to no one in particular.

"Governments will:

  • Ensure everyone can connect to the internet so that anyone, no matter who they are or where they live, can participate actively online.
  • Keep all of the internet available, all of the time so that no one is denied their right to full internet access.
  • Respect people’s fundamental right to privacy…."

And so on.

We applaud the intent but knocking up a document, shoving Sir Tim out on a stage to talk about it and coming up with a boring hashtag is not going to achieve anything.

Ageing organization

Maybe the Web Foundation doesn't have the energy or passion to do a proper job, maybe it doesn't have the resources, maybe this was all thrown together after Sir Tim woke up grumpy one morning without a cup of coffee.

angry man

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But simply saying companies shouldn't make money from personal data and governments shouldn't turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

The sad truth is that the Web Foundation's influence continues to diminish as companies increasingly do their own thing with standards and the early passionate creators of internet norms fade away: they spent too long trying to carve out their legacies and not enough time focused on inspiring a new generation of leaders.

There is plenty of reason to believe that the younger generation of internet users are annoyed and frustrated about the paths that powerful internet companies have gone down. And the truth is that, collectively, they do have the power to force change.

But there needs to be a rally point and a clear statement of intent that can drive it. And this latest Web Foundation document ain't it. ®

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the manifesto was launched by the W3C. We regret the error.

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