Not Signing the Contract

Sir Tim Berners Lee has recently released his latest project, the Contract for the Web which outlines nine principles for governments, companies, and people to follow. On the surface, these nine ideals sound great and are something to get behind. In reality, however, the principles mask contradictions and illogical expectations that do little to resolve the actual issues facing people's access to and/or activities online. To make matters worse, the contract is endorsed by companies such as Google and Facebook; two organisations that have done more to destroy trust and privacy than any entity in the history of humanity. As such, I cannot — and will not — sign the contract.

What's bizarre is how the principles generally align with my beliefs1. Here they are as they're written today:

Governments:

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.

Whenever the word "rights" appears in a document, I look for the other side of the statement. In order to have rights, there must be responsibilities. Do the outlined responsibilities align with the right being claimed? If so, then there may be precedent in granting the right. Otherwise, it's just a demand.

Companies:

4 ⇢ Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone.
5 ⇢ Respect and protect people's privacy and personal data to build online trust.
6 ⇢ Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

Of the nine principles, number six bothers me the most. When you read more, there isn't one technology outlined. This is all about pushing an agenda that has nothing to do with supporting the best or challenging the worst, which are already subjective ideas that cannot be agreed upon by two people in from the same culture, let alone 7-billion people from every way of life.

More on this later.

Citizens:

7 ⇢ Be creators and collaborators on the Web.
8 ⇢ Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity.
9 ⇢ Fight for the Web.

It's interesting to see number eight in this list, given that Twitter has endorsed the contract. The most active threads on that social forum respect neither civil discourse nor human dignity. Heck, if I were still on that network, I'd probably be compared to Satan himself, because I will not subjugate myself to the groupthink that seems to have become so inescapable over the last decade.

Off-hand remarks aside, these nine principles sound good. Really good. Governments certainly have the power to ensure everyone can connect and access the entirety of the web, both good and bad, while ensuring that there are no state-sponsored or mandated data collection processes in place. Access to the Internet is not a human right, but it should be available to those who choose to use it. I can agree with the surface content of these three principles.

Principle 1.3 comes across as wholly unnecessary, though. It feels as though it was shoved in despite the fact that Principle 1.1 and 1.2 already cover the four items in 1.3. If everyone is supposed to have access, as stated in 1.1, would this not also include "women and other systematically excluded groups"? What part of everyone doesn't include more than 50% of any given population? I wholly agree that everyone should have access. I disagree with the wording that excludes more than 50% of a nation from the word "everyone".

Principle 4.1 (a) also strikes me as bizarre. It reads "[Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, by crafting policies that address the needs of systematically excluded groups], [by] designing gender responsive and inclusive data plans targeting women and other systematically excluded groups."

So … only cis-gendered caucasian men should pay full price for access to the internet in western nations, cis-gendered Japanese men should pay full price in Japan, cis-gendered Chinese men should pay full price in China, and so on. Everyone else gets a discount … right? Because this is what I'm reading. This isn't me trying to play the victim2. This is me reading the words on the page.

One thing I like about Principle 4.1 is section (c), which reads: "Ensuring user interfaces and customer service are effective, and offered in languages and mediums that are accessible to minorities and people with disabilities, including by respecting universal acceptance principles."

Having a UI that is offered in languages that are accessible to people who identify as minorities will be quite the challenge for anyone in a nation that has more than one tongue3. This is not an impossible task, but it does leave an organisation wondering how to properly address the situation without resorting to the awful use of machine translation software. What I liked, though, was the goal to have interfaces accessible to people with disabilities. Too few websites — including this one, I'll admit — do much for people who might have different degrees of visual acuity.

Principle 5 is wholly incompatible with Google and Facebook's business model. The fact they've been permitted to endorse the contract is why the whole thing is meaningless. Sure, one could argue that we should sign anyways, and "fight" (Principle 9) to ensure large corporations who have signed live up to their promises, but that's not how shit works on the internet.

Principle 6

Where to begin.

First, section (a) "Respecting and supporting human rights, as outlined by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights." is not a technology. Neither is (b) "Establishing policies designed to respect and promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those pertaining to education, gender equality, systematically excluded groups, climate, and socio-environmental justice.". Nor is (c) "Assessing and addressing risks created by their technologies, including risks associated with online content (such as misinformation and disinformation), behavior, and personal well-being."

Some of these are certainly laudable goals. Who wouldn't encourage the support of human rights? However, none of these are technologies. To wedge this social justice component into a principle that is defined as (to) "Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst" is already presenting itself with a non-recoverable contradiction.

Principle 6.2 brings up the word "intersectionalities" in section (a), a word that has yet to make it into many dictionaries, which means it's already a losing proposition to back this contract. How many "intersectionalities" are there in the world? Let's see … what's the population of the human race? Yeah … that many. We are all human. All of us. Principle 6.2 should really read: "By interacting with people honestly"4. Let's step away from the Animal Farm allegories where some groups are more equal than others, because it's a false narrative. If we are to be treated as equals, nobody can have preferential treatment.

Principle 6.3 is the only time any sort of technology is mentioned. Therefore, Principle 6 has nothing to do with what it claims.

For citizens of the internet, Principle 7 is right in line with what I agree with. Open collaboration, communication, and participation. That's an admirable trifecta to aim for. Principle 8 gets preachy pretty quick, mixing admirable activities with virtue signalling. And Principle 9 … is pretty good for four of the five items it mentions.

There is no denying that I despise what the web has become and have sequestered myself to an island of my own making. The general lack of respect shown by corporations, asshole developers, and drive-by warriors is excessive and unacceptable. Tim Berners Lee and his organisation may be trying to bring about a positive change with this "contract", but it's ultimately untenable. People who truly believe in the nine principles as they're stated on the project page will do what they do regardless of whether they publicly back the initiative or not. People who do not will endorse the contract.


  1. Notice this word; beliefs. I believe in what the principles state on the surface. It's when you "read more" that problems arise.

  2. I am not a victim. I've been raped but, even then, I was not a victim.

  3. Every nation has speakers of different languages. Canada has at least 77 spoken languages and six signed languages according to Wikipedia

  4. I have a very serious bone to pick with group identity politicking, as it's an inglorious waste of time and energy. I may have a certain genetic make-up and certain belief system and certain set of ideologies and certain preferences, but there's no way in hell anyone can group me in with every other person who looks, walks, and talks like me. Fuck that. I am my own person. I speak for me. Nobody else does.