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Recently, the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, has launched a global campaign to save the web from the destructive effects of abuse and discrimination, political manipulation, and other threats that plague the online world.

In a talk at the opening of the Web Summit in Lisbon, he called on governments, companies and individuals to back a new “Contract for the Web” that aims to protect people’s rights and freedoms on the internet.

“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

Under the principles laid out in the document, which Berners-Lee calls a “Magna Carta for the web,” governments must ensure that its citizens have access to all of the internet, all of the time, and that their privacy is respected so they can be online “freely, safely and without fear.”

This call by Tim Berners-Lee for an “Internet of Trust” comes in line with The Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace released by President Macron on November 12th, 2018, at the UNESCO Internet Governance Forum in Paris. The Paris Call, as it became known, outlines a commitment to end “malicious cyber activities in peacetime.” As it is stated in the document:

“Cyberspace, which is becoming increasingly central to our lives, is a place of opportunity, but also of new threats. The growth in cybercrime and malicious activity can also endanger both our private data and certain critical infrastructures. In order to respect people’s rights and protect them online as they do in the physical world, States must work together, but also collaborate with private-sector partners, the world of research and civil society.”

To achieve their goal, the supporters have agreed to:

  • increase prevention against and resilience to malicious online activity;
  • protect the accessibility and integrity of the Internet;
  • cooperate in order to prevent interference in electoral processes;
  • work together to combat intellectual property violations via the Internet;
  • prevent the proliferation of malicious online programmes and techniques;
  • improve the security of digital products and services as well as everybody’s “cyber hygiene”;
  • clamp down on online mercenary activities and offensive action by non-state actors;
  • work together to strengthen the relevant international standards.

But the non-binding agreement did not include buy-in from the most active cyber actors, including US, Australia, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Israel, presumably because they don’t want to have their hands tied. Without them, the accord will be missing the players that matter most.

Yet this move to develop norms for the way countries should act in cyberspace was different from previous efforts because of the broad support from the private sector. The agreement highlights how governments are now understanding and embracing the significant role companies can play in combating threats in cyberspace. And by signing agreements with governments worldwide, it’s clear that companies are becoming a global political force of their own.

On the same issue, in an appearance before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Margot James, minister for digital and the creative industries, said that the British government is considering legal measures to control the behavior of social media companies. In 2017, the British government published its Internet Safety Strategy green paper, which laid out a set of broad principles regarding appropriate online conduct.

The paper states that what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online; that all users should be empowered to stay safe online; and that technology companies have a responsibility for the content that they host. The government is due to publish a white paper this winter which lays out how these recommendations could be enforced, through both legislative and non-legislative mechanisms.

These developments are highlighting one crucial and vital question: has the time come for a binding treaty for the freedom and ethics of the internet under the auspices of a transnational organization such as the UN? Is this a symbolic step on the road towards the creation of a Digital Geneva Convention or just a missed call?

Whether or not that actually represents a step in the right direction remains to be seen.