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Web of contracts: Only benefit of Lee plan is that it brings everyone together

Ishaan Gera

Some declarations evoke unnamed nostalgia-anything that starts with the words "We, the people", is bound to arouse emotions and make readers/listeners be filled with a sense of pride and belonging, or rather the comfort of belonging. Over two decades ago, John Perry Barlow released a document called the declaration of independence of cyberspace. This was only seven years after Tim-Berners Lee had given the world the worldwide web. Although Lee's idea was still in infancy, many bloggers and free thinkers like Barlow had used the space as an arena to avoid government scrutiny.

A space where free-thinking men and women were allowed to interact. Barlow starts his declaration with a reiteration of this ideal. "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

While Barlow was intent on keeping the government's out and, perhaps rightly so, Lee was trying to get corporations to build the internet and upon it. Unbeknownst to both, these very corporations were to go against the ideals that both were trying to protect. The internet became both too free and too commercialised. Communities spewing venom against users sprung up, so did companies capitalising on personal data. Echo chambers are not a Facebook or Twitter phenomenon, blogs and discussion platforms exhibited such behaviour long ago. When their popularity swayed, users migrated to the more popular channels. The more notorious or freer went to the dark web.

Barlow died last year, but Lee is taking the fight forward. This time not to promote the internet, but to save it from itself, from the governments and corporations. On November 5, Lee released a contract for the web. The document prepared after wide consultation with people, corporations (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) and governments fixes responsibilities for each to save Dear Internet.

The internet is dead, long live the internet.

While the document is simple, it asks each of the counterparties to forego their interests and manage the network. The corporations are to give up the pursuit of profit and monetisation of personal data; governments are to forego the right to snoop and citizens are to respect civil discourse and human dignity. While all this may be right, and does indeed make sense, it is also far too utopian. Without the governments putting restrictions on what companies can and cannot do, one cannot expect privacy of personal data. But, on the other hand, the government would not lose sight of its citizens by ensuring complete privacy. Citizens fighting for the web and respecting civil discourse is also right, but most have just been introduced to the net and do not mind giving up a few controls to the corporations, or for that matter giving up the newfound freedom of expression, howsoever perverse it may be.

More important, with no checks and balances, the contract is bound to fail. One of the reasons for international organisations failing is that there is seldom anyone to impose costs for violation of an agreement. So, whereas all have agreed to be a part of the contract of the web-it does make for good PR-the question is how many will follow it. A Facebook or a Google giving up control of user data is highly unlikely, especially when the companies are finding new ways to track and monetise. High-speed internet is bringing the next billion users on the bandwagon powered by new technologies, so why would anyone give up now?

The best Lee can hope to achieve is a compromise. Corporations can share profits with users, and governments can introduce restrictions on what all corporations can collect. Users can force governments to keep the internet free. The revolution lives on. Even if Lee does get everyone to sign the contract, no one will follow. For now, all he has achieved from this exercise is to get everyone on board for discussions.