Very unsure what to think about Tim Berners Lee’s latest attempt to, let’s say, re-civilize the web. A web that was lost somewhere along the way.

Now there’s a draft ‘contract for the web‘, with 9 principles, 3 each for governments, companies and citizens.

It’s premise and content aren’t the issue. It reads The web was designed to bring people together and make knowledge freely available. Everyone has a role to play to ensure the web serves humanity. By committing to this Contract, governments, companies and citizens around the world can help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone., and then goes on to call upon governments to see internet access as a core necessity and a human right that shouldn’t be censored, upon companies to not abuse personal data, and on citizens to actively defend their rights, also by exercising them continuously.

There’s nothing wrong with those principles, I try to adhere to a number of them myself, and have been conveying others to my clients for years.

I do wonder however what this Contract for the Web is for, and what it is intended to achieve.

At the Contract for the Web site it says
Given this document is still in the process of negotiation, at this stage participants have not been asked to formally support or oppose the document in its current form.

Negotiation? What’s there to negotiate? Citizens will promise not to troll online if governments promise not to censor? If a company can’t use your personal data, it will no longer be an internet service provider? Who is negotiating, and on behalf of whom?
Formally support the contract? What does that mean? ‘Formal’ implies some sort of legal status?

There are of course all kinds of other initiatives that have voluntary commitments by various stakeholders. But usually it clearly has a purpose. The Open Government Partnership for instance collects voluntary open government commitments by national governments. Countries you’d wish would actually embark on open government however have left the initiative or never joined, those that are active are a group, (not all), of the willing for whom OGP is a self-provided badge of good behaviour. It provides them an instrument to show their citizens they are trying and doing so in ways that allows citizens to benchmark their governments efforts. Shields them against the notion they’re not doing anything. It does not increase open government above what governments were willing to do anyway, it does provide a clear process to help build continuity, and to build upon other member’s experience and good practices reducing the overall effort needed to attain certain impacts.

Other initiatives of this type are more self-regulatory in a sector, with the purpose of preventing actual regulation by governments. The purpose is to prevent exposing oneself to new legal liabilities.

But what does the Contract for the Web aim for? How is it an instrument with a chance of having impact?
It says “this effort is guided by others’ past work on digital and human rights” such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the EU GDPR. What does it bring beyond such heavy lifting instruments and how? The EU charter is backed up by the courts, so as a citizen I have a redress mechanism. The GDPR is backed up by fines up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover or 20 million whichever is bigger.

How is it envisioned the Contract for the Web will attract more than those stakeholders already doing what the contract asks?
How is it envisioned it can be a practical instrument for change?

I don’t get a sense of clear purpose from the website. In the section on ‘how will this lead to change’ first much is made of voluntary commitments by governments and companies (i.e. a gathering of the willing, that likely would adhere to the principles anyway), which then ends with “Ultimately it is about making the case for open, universal web that works for everyone“. I have difficulty seeing how a ‘contract’ is an instrument in ‘making a case’.

Why a contract? Declaration, compact, movement, convention, manifesto, agenda all come to mind, but I can’t really place Contract.

What am I missing?

Untitled Forms / 20090924.SD850IS.3202.P1.SQ / SML
Please sign at the dotted line, before you go online?.
Image ‘untitled forms’ by See-ming Lee, license CC BY SA