How the Web Needs to Change in the Next 25 Years
As explained by Anne Jellema, the CEO of the Web Foundation.
Image: Shutterstock/Moon Light PhotoStudio
It’s the web’s 25th birthday: On this day in 1989, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee finished his proposal for what he tentatively named the World Wide Web. He figured it would be a good way for he and his colleagues at CERN to share information, and his boss agreed it was worth pursuing with the guarded words of approval, “Vague, but exciting…”
While the fundamental technology of the web has remained more or less the same to this day, the ways in which we use it have changed rather dramatically. The web has gone from a kind of information management system for a niche community of computer geeks to a universal tool of empowerment and what many consider to be a basic human right.
The continued development of the web is therefore as much concerned with politics and social issues as it is with technology. The World Wide Web Foundation, launched by Berners-Lee in 2009, works to extend the full beneficial potential of the web to everyone.
Berners-Lee's proposal for the web. Image: CERN
I spoke to Anne Jellema, the Foundation’s CEO, about the work they’re doing to achieve this goal. One thing is clear: Among the birthday celebrations and the nostalgic flashbacks to the web’s past, there are also questions to be asked about its future.
Motherboard: Tell me about the World Wide Web Foundation—what’s your mission?
Anne Jellema: The Web Foundation was established by Tim Berners-Lee four years ago to advance his vision of an open and free web that empowers all of humanity. So we work to establish the open and free web as a global public good and a basic right, and to make sure that everyone can benefit from it.
When you say an “open and free web,” what exactly do you mean?
We mean a web that allows everybody to freely communicate, connect, collaborate, exercise their right to freedom of expression and information and freedom of association, and empowers them to find solutions to the problems facing them—and that does so in a way that is true to the original spirit of Tim’s invention, i.e. decentralised, permissionless, non-proprietary, and neutral.
In your view, what are the biggest threats to the web right now?
Well, on the plus side we have never been so close in all of human history to achieving a world where everybody is able to communicate and access information and create things and express themselves, regardless of income or geographical location or social barriers. So we’re very, very close to something truly transformative to the world, but there are some challenges that could prevent us from reaching that goal.
Anne Jellema. Image: Web Foundation
The first and most obvious is the fact that three in five of the world’s people are not online at all, and that is largely a matter of affordability. The infrastructure is there now, so most people on the planet are covered by 2G or 3G signal—the amount of broadband capacity available in the developing world has risen dramatically in recent years—but prices are still way out of reach for most people.
We’re talking anywhere from 30 percent to over 100 percent of average monthly income just for the most basic broadband connection in a lot of developing countries. So changing that is an obvious win, and it will contribute as well to the next wave of innovation and creativity on the web.
The second one is the rising tide of censorship and surveillance that we’re seeing around the world. The number of instances of governed content or controlled online activity in various ways has been going up from year to year, and we’re also seeing a huge rush by governments to purchase new surveillance technology and to implement forms of bulk data collection. So censorship and surveillance are very worrying trends that could dramatically undermine the web as a platform for freedom of expression and freedom of association, and that we’re deeply worried about.
Three in five of the world’s people are not online at all, and that is largely a matter of affordability.
The third is the growing centralisation of the internet. An increasing proportion of our communications now flow through just a tiny handful of companies. That’s happened because these companies provide genuine value added to consumers; they have great services and they’re incredibly easy to use and they’re colourful. But the unintended consequence of that has been a very strong concentration of both our online data flowing through the servers of these companies and also the ways in which our online experience, what we learn and do online, is filtered through the passages that we access.
That’s a worry because it could destroy the real magic of the web, the serendipity of linking to anything from anywhere and discovering things that maybe you never knew you were out to learn in the first place. It also poses security and privacy risks; that concentration of data traffic through the servers of a few companies made it an awful lot easier for the NSA and GCHQ to tap into that traffic, and we could see that happening with other governments as well. So we don’t think that’s healthy for the web, and we don’t think that’s healthy for users’ rights on the web.
How can we spread the web across these three in five people that don’t have access?
Well, there are a lot of solutions that add up to universal access. Investment in public access programs is one of them; creating the conditions for genuine competition in the marketplace at every layer of services and infrastructure, that’s very important.
This map shows broadband subscribers per 100 population as of 2012; the darker the colour, the better connected the country is. Image: Web Foundation
In a lot of countries we see a lot of very anti-competitive practices in the marketplace that conspire to keep costs higher than they should be, and that can happen at the level of international gateway, it can happen at the level of domestic backbone, it can happen at the level of devices. So we need genuinely competitive conditions in markets for internet services. And then we also need transparency.
To address particularly the problem of how to build a healthy competitive marketplace for broadband, the Web Foundation has formed a coalition with some of the world’s leading technology companies, mobile operators, state agencies, and academic research institutes, called the Alliance for Affordable Internet. The aim of the alliance is to foster genuine competition and transparency in broadband markets to get broadband down below five percent of average monthly income.
In the most developed countries, a broadband package will cost you one to two percent of income, whereas in developing countries it will cost you up to 150 percent of your income, and that has got to change. The good news is we think it’s relatively easy to change it.
When you think of things like censorship and a restricted web, countries like China and North Korea spring to mind, but obviously conditions aren’t perfect in places like the US and the UK either. What trends have you been noticing?
Well, we do an annual report, the Web Index, which tracks the health of the web and its contribution to human rights and development in 81 countries around the world, and last year we found that fewer than five percent of the 81 countries that we looked at had best practice measures in place for due process and oversight of communications surveillance.
So really only a tiny handful of countries have laws and institutions in place that are adequate to deal with the issues raised by the technological possibilities of data collection online, and that’s something that needs to change very quickly.
This maps rates the web's freedom and openness around the world; Norway takes the top spot. Image: Web Foundation
Through the Web We Want campaign, we’re mobilising web users around the world to stand up for their rights online and to make sure that laws are put in place in every country that guarantee our right to freedom of expression and privacy online.
You’re absolutely right that it’s not always a black and white scenario. There are serious problems in countries like China, but there are also some serious problems in countries like the US and UK. None of that will change unless ordinary people demand they have to have a say. If we leave it to the politicians and the security agencies and the techies, things may not turn out the way that we want them to.
So what’s really the solution? Surely if we move to regulate on a country to country basis, there’s a risk of the web becoming fragmented, which sort of undermines the idea of an open web?
Yes, it’s a challenge. Ultimately, the decisions about who can collect data and what they can do with it are always going to be made at a national level, so it’s very important that each country has a robust legal framework to protect our rights online.
But at the same time, it’s important that legal frameworks protect our right to freedom on the global web and not just a national web. We need to embed the principle of universality and access to global sources of information and association, not just within national borders.
We need laws that have been updated to reflect the reality of the digital era and that provide real democratic accountability.
They call it extraterritoriality, a fancy legal word I learned recently, which means that countries have to respect the privacy of people living in other countries, not just within their own borders. It’s actually a very critical principle for our new networked digital world.
As we’ve seen with the revelations about the NSA, even if there are proper protections for American citizens against snooping without a warrant, that won’t necessarily apply to citizens in other countries who use Google or Microsoft or Facebook or other services based in the US. So the solution to that is that the principle of extraterritoriality is respected, so that citizens of any country can have confidence that their privacy is not being violated by another country.
Speaking of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, I presume they’re among the companies you referred to when you mentioned that the web is becoming increasingly centralised owing to the huge roles these companies play in it. What’s their responsibility moving forward?
That’s a good question, and I think the ones we’ve been working with around issues of affordability and issues of freedom and privacy online, they’ve actually been asking national governments to form their laws. They don’t want to be the ones who are left having to take decisions about people’s privacy and what’s permissible for national security. So number one, at a governmental level we need laws that have been updated to reflect the reality of the digital era and that provide real democratic accountability and oversight for surveillance.
Secondly, companies have a responsibility to implement the best possible encryption on their systems. Some of them have done a great job, others have not.
Third, of course, is transparency, so disclosing as much as they can—as much as they’re legally permitted to—to people who are the targets of data collection requests. So that comes back to the point of reforming laws and oversight nationally, because we can’t expect companies to do things that are actually illegal!
But they need to be involved in helping to advocate and push for that reform and they also need to provide maximum transparency within the limits of what they can do right now. Again, some people have been more proactive than others on the transparency front.
Indeed. What do you hope the web will look like in the next 25 years?
Well, as I said, we’re hoping that the web will continue to grow so that it reaches its true potential of connecting everyone on the planet, providing them with the means to make their voice heard, create and shape the world that they live in, without regard to their income or class or geographic location.
And that an open and free web can underpin a truly participatory democracy and economy that can help us address the many other challenges that we face in the next 25 years.