A recent discussion about the future of the world wide web with its creator Tim Berners-Lee highlighted some of the challenges ahead if we are to realise the vision of “a world where everyone, everywhere is online and able to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity”.
Speaking at the Southbank Centre, ahead of its six-month Web We Want Festival, which starts in September, Berners-Lee said that censorship during the unrest in the Middle East had influenced his decision to call for a global Magna Carta to make the web safer and more democratic.
In particular, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to disconnect Egypt was the moment when “a lot of people out there said, and started to think; ‘wait a moment, who can turn off my Internet?’ and that caused some reaction, and it showed the digital gap that existed,” he explained.
There is an urgent need for a system of checks and balances to ensure governments are at least cautious about spying on their citizens, added Berners-Lee, who has also launched a global Web We Want project marking 25 years since its creation. In addition to a global Magna Carta to safeguard the web, the UK should also, he said, have a plan:
“Our homework as Brits is that by the end of the year we’ve got a list of laws that we know we’re going to have to put in place and introduce. We’re going to have to have some government structures that we’re really going to have to tweak to ensure that we entrench very specific powers that we give to very specific agents. So by the end of this year we need to work as hard as we can to achieve it,” he explained.
Writer and women’s rights consultant Jessica Horn said that censorship and surveillance had “real life implications” for people living in Nigeria and Uganda where anti-gay laws mean that activists and advocates face prison terms for “promoting” homosexuality: “It’s easy to use words like privacy and security in the abstract, but this is what it’s like if you don’t have it,” she warned.
From the audience, the founder of Mumsnet Justine Roberts spoke in defence of anonymity, claiming that there was “growing pressure” from both business and government to prevent the use of online pseudonyms. “Being anonymous doesn’t mean you’re a troll” she claimed, adding that anonymity can be an essential prerequisite for individuals wanting to share their views and “an awful lot would be lost in terms of truth and honesty” if it was stopped.
Berners-Lee agreed with her and asked if there was a problem with trolling on the site. Roberts’ reply was that the biggest problem was misogynistic abuse aimed at her after a public appearance, but the main problem, she said, was “around women having a voice”.
Among the other issues discussed was the need for more women to be involved in the world of “geekdom” and the threat of internet giants like Facebook dominating the web. Berners-Lee also addressed issues raised by schoolchildren at the event that included how using hashtags as easy shorthand meant many young people weren’t compelled to search out words for themselves to express emotions and the impact of social media on face to face relationships.
In response to remarks about the pressures that came about as a result of ‘perfect Tumblr girl’ or boy, Berners-Lee wondered if there should be a meme that “called out” too much perfection and also challenged the tendency of the internet to polarise opinion and create silos of people with similar beliefs and interests.
Finding ways to develop what he called “stretch friends” (people who are outside of your normal circle) could be an important part of fulfilling the web’s potential of connecting people across the world, he added.
Julie Tomlin is co-founder of Digital Women UK.
Picture credit: Image of Tim Berners-Lee with Jude Kelly at the Southbank Centre by Belinda Lawley.