Even though it’s only just turned 29, the world wide web is already having a midlife crisis, as Tim Berners-Lee’s birthday message shows.
With age, comes some frailty, and the web also - like many of us - has started to show its failings more acutely.
But that achievement masks a different vulnerability. We are all using technology without understanding the implications of that use. Doteveryone’s recent research found that two-thirds of us are unaware of how our data is collected. More than half of us have signed up to terms and conditions without reading them. A quarter don’t know how internet companies make money.
And there are other, hidden, inequalities - like those between people who own high-end, easy-to-use, secure tablets and phones and people with cheaper, less secure hardware; or between those who can afford unlimited data packages, and those whose information is vulnerable as they hop from one unsecured public wifi network to another.
Getting people online is only part of the battle. We must ensure people have not only digital access and digital skills but also digital understanding.
We need investment in new forms of public engagement and education - not just aimed at children but at everyone in society. We need public information campaigns for the digital age which build resilience in all of us to understand the opportunities and risks of new technologies.
Sir Tim also mourns the loss of the internet’s youthful diversity. The abundant opportunities of the early years of the internet have been stamped down into the dominance of a few, multinational corporations. He seems bewildered that the pioneering idealists have turned into the staid money-grabbers they promised never to become.
He’s right that this is the most pressing challenge the internet faces today. But harking back to the ideals of a web we may once have wanted does not help fix what we have now. He suggests a ‘legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions’.
Such tentative words will be steam-rollered by the internet of today. We must say it clearly. Regulation is needed and it needs to be tough.
Doteveryone’s research found that while half of the UK population says the internet has been very good for them only 12% say it’s been very good for society. Technology companies bear an obligation to the societies which they are changing in ways and at a pace never seen before.
There needs to be an independent body where the public can turn to demand the accountability they don’t currently get from tech companies. This body should support the wide range of existing regulators whose remit touches on technologies - from the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees the use of data, to Ofcom which regulates broadband connections - and ensure they have the capacity to respond to a fast changing environment. And it should have the power to set standards and best practice - whether it’s Terms and Conditions which people can actually understand or preventing addictive patterns in algorithms.
And this body can also help respond to Sir Tim’s plea for a new vision of the internet. He’s right that there’s no reason to accept the future a few major tech companies have laid out for us. Doteveryone has been exploring what Responsible Technology looks like. We believe regulation should lay a path for different futures - not just rein in the harms of the status quo - and create incentives for innovation for the good of everyone in society.
But it’s pressing that this work begins. Time has been lost while governments fret that it’s all too complicated, or others worry that it’s against the principles of a global internet to impose national regulation. There is no lack of good ideas - from the British government idea of a turnover tax on large firms to exploring possibilities of social media regulation aimed at “harm reduction”.
What’s needed is the political courage to recognise the urgency to act. Waiting for international agreement is a recipe for doing nothing. Individual countries must start to show what progressive regulation looks like in practice.
Led by Sir Tim, the UK pioneered the web. As a country we can also pioneer a fairer, more responsible internet which works for the benefit of everyone in society. If we act now, next year, we can mark the internet’s 30th birthday with less existential angst.
Rachel Coldicutt is Chief Executive of Doteveryone