The wider world web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web and director of the Web Foundation, points to what needs to happen for the future of the digital age

Mon Nov 02 2015

Science and technology

Twenty-five years after the first website became publicly accessible, in 2016 the web will become even more important to businesses, states and people everywhere. Governments will need to update laws for our digital age—with big ramifications.

In 2015 a typical online business model consisted of collecting personal data and “monetising” it (eg, selling it to advertisers). In 2016 people will push for control of their data, to use them for their own benefit. This will challenge existing business models, creating an exciting market for new products.

Applications will integrate data from diverse aspects of life—financial, medical, home automation—but allow individuals to control what to share with whom. Today, calendar apps merge information from home, work and, say, your favourite band. In 2016 things like health apps will begin to work similarly, mixing data from doctors and hospitals you visit and health-monitoring devices you use.

As people assert control over their data, the web will “re-decentralise”, reducing dependency on technology giants, returning power to individuals and businesses, and allowing developers a rich space for innovation.

Meanwhile, a critical mass of governments will open up public data for public benefit. Open government data (the release of public datasets online, in reusable formats and under open licences) have many uses. For increasingly cash-strapped governments, what brings them to embrace open data may well be their use as a tool to fight corruption and waste. For example, by cross-referencing thousands of government purchases with company-registry and party-donation records, Transparency International Georgia discovered that government contracts were, in many cases, being awarded to politically connected firms, raising questions of possible links to political donations.

Web Foundation research shows that fewer than 8% of countries currently publish the datasets most critical to prevent corruption and waste. In 2016 a new international Open Data Charter—with support from governments worldwide—will finally tip the scales towards opening up data for all.

New laws for a new age

Some cyber-libertarians in the 1990s suggested that less regulation is always better for the internet. Yet the temptation for companies to break the web’s openness for profit has become ever stronger, while serious criminal activity has tested every limit of the laws (many predating the web) applied to the digital realm. Balancing the interests and rights of individuals, companies and states—without undermining the universal architecture of the internet itself—is increasingly hard.

This is nowhere more evident than in escalating disputes over privacy, encryption and anonymity. The year ahead will see increased demand for data security and encryption, as people realise the extent and value of their “data trails”. Law-enforcement agencies are pushing back against encryption, fearing that this technology allows communication beyond the law’s reach. Yet strong encryption is essential for many industries, financial services in particular. A blanket ban is unworkable, while creating “back doors” exposes weaknesses for criminals to attack.

Faced with such knotty problems, countries will seek new legal frameworks for the internet. But will these be transparent and democratic—and preserve an open internet?

A raft of poorly conceived “cybercrime” laws are emerging, authorising everything from politically motivated censorship to indiscriminate surveillance, while at the same time leaving engineers with good intentions and a little curiosity open to overly harsh punishment. Also of concern are efforts in America and elsewhere to make companies “voluntarily” share user information with security agencies, without a legal process.

However, forward-thinking governments are developing national internet Bills of Rights based upon broad public participation, which entrench human rights and safeguard space for innovation, while recognising the legitimate needs of companies to make profits and of governments to fight crime.

Brazil pioneered this approach in 2014; Italy followed suit in 2015. Similar processes are under way in Nigeria, Jordan, Guatemala and through the African Union. In 2016 more of these Bills of Rights will become law. At the global level, efforts to agree on core principles for the digital age in a new Magna Carta for the internet will intensify.

To resolve the hard questions ahead and ensure that the vast amounts of data we create become tools for personal empowerment and economic innovation, we need policies made in the open, with informed debate. The web’s true potential for democracy, economic growth and human creativity is only just beginning to be glimpsed. In 2016 all of us must protect and enhance this public space for the benefit of all humankind.

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