Contract for the Web addresses virtues and vices of government intervention

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Contract for the web

The “Contract for the Web” campaign published its manifesto last week, titled, naturally enough, Contract for the Web. It’s a declaration of nine principles, including “make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone”, “respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust” and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”, which are among the tasks the contract assigns to private companies. Individuals are urged to “be creators and collaborators on the web”, “build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity”, and “fight for the web”.

The Contract was written by a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from Google to Change.org to the German government, and the effort is led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Even so, it’s been criticised for having no teeth. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have signed on to it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll pay any attention to it.

True enough. There’s more to it, though.

The Contract opens with a clear call for government enforcement, and even intervention. The first three principles state that governments will…

  1. Ensure everyone can connect to the internet.
  2. Keep all of the internet available, all of the time.
  3. Respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.

Simply stating that a government – any government – should do something is of little consequence. But as governments adopt the Contract, in whole or in part, over time, it’ll grow teeth. And governments and subordinate agencies are doing that.

The details of the privacy principle track with the European Union’s general data protection regulation. Tasks to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet” include measures that local governments in California have already adopted, such as “dig once” policies and pole access agreements.

Regulatory agencies are in the game, too. For example, the Contract sets the goal that “1GB of mobile data costs no more than 2% of average monthly income by 2025”. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering affordability standards for broadband and other utilities that are heading in the same direction.

Government is far from being a universally benign force in the world, though, and the Contract recognises that fact too, for example calling for requirements that…

Government demands for access to private communications and data are necessary and proportionate to the aim pursued, lawful and subject to due process, comply with international human rights norms, and do not require service providers or data processors to weaken or undermine the security of their products and services.

That’s a message that the U.S. government needs to hear.