In July 2019, Sir Tim Berners Lee published the first draft of the Contract for the Web: nine founding principles to save the internet from imploding under the collective weight of global misuse coupled with online developments that are fast becoming unacceptable risks to the future of global society. Just over a week ago, the final version was published – signed by a powerful array of influential supporters – and organized into three sections.
I have written elsewhere about my worries about threats to civil discourse, and it is a concern that is deepening, not being made less, as time goes by. It is no longer a concern confined to the ugly world of the destructive armchair troll, but one that seems increasingly to cross over between cyber and real worlds. The ugliness of online hate and uninformed rant seems to be spilling over into our face-to-face lives. It is as if the seeming lack of accountability for online behavior is gaining a foothold in a world where uninformed voices of prejudice are emboldened by real people in real positions of real power expressing opinions of real discrimination and hate.
This being the case, the need for a Contract for the Web has never been more pressing, not just because of its intent to fix an internet that is more broken with each click of a mouse, but because it calls into question fundamental behaviors that are threatening civil society. Principle 8 calls for “Strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity”, broken down into four vitally important statements:
- Adopting best practices on civil discourse online and educating the next generation on these matters.
- Committing to amplify the messages of systematically excluded groups, and standing up for them when they are being targeted or abused.
- Taking steps to protect their privacy and security, and that of others, by choosing products and services thoughtfully, and articulating privacy preferences accordingly.
- Refraining from participating in the non-consensual dissemination of intimate information that breach privacy and trust.
I am an educator and I am a parent. From my vantage point, I wonder what could be more pressing than educating the next generation how to engage in genuinely civil discourse, inspiring them to stand up for systematically excluded groups, teaching them to demand respect for privacy and security, and to be conscious contributors to the common good?
I hope that one day the Contract for the Web will be judged by history as one of society’s most important turning points. In a spirit of hope and optimism, I sincerely hope that its message is heard by policy makers, influencers, educators and anyone who, like me, is tired and angry at the hijacking of civility, and who fears for the kind of world in danger of being inherited by our children.
I hope that one day the Contract for the Web will be seen as the moment when civil society recognized the need for a Contract to Save Us from Ourselves.