25.5 years of WWW: fast-forward replay of societal evolution

socialevolutionA mere 25 and a half years have past since the birth of the World Wide Web, currently being celebrated at the Web We Want festival in London. Based on the tone of discussions at the festival today one could certainly be forgiven for coming away with the impression that in this short time the Internet, and the web it supports, has transitioned from a lawless virtual Wild West inhabited primarily by free-spirited, slightly anarchistic, computer geeks into a feudalistic patchwork of fiefdoms, each controlled by a multinational corporation that is rapidly building  ever larger walls to shield its user/inhabitants from the dangers of the free and wild internet beyond their control.

Internet.org, with its restricted access to Facebook approved websites being the strongest and most blatant such development. As added spice we might image Bittorrent as a kind of latter-day Robin Hood that ‘steals from the rich and gives to the poor’ when people, who purchased a piece of media use it to download a second copy of the media because the draconian vendor-locked copy-right protection makes it impossible to use their purchase in the way they want to.

One of the principle purposes of the Web We Want organization is to push for the development of a Magna Carta for the Web, to clearly set out the Digital Rights of internet users. As was the case 800 years ago when the original Magna Carta was created during the days of feudal Britain, property and ownership are set to play a central role. People are becoming increasingly unhappy with the way in which the companies that own internet platforms, e.g. Facebook, are dealing with people’s data. To quote Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in one of his answers to a question from the audience during the morning session “Towards a Magna Carta For The Web: Insight From Diverse Voices”,  people are increasingly demanding that “my data belongs to ME”.

It is far to early to tell what kind of impact, if any, the Magna Carta for the Web will have on the current power asymmetry between the corporations that manage the web platforms and the users that inhabit them, and increasingly produce the content value of the platforms. In conjunction with other efforts, such as the EU Data Protection Reform, it is hoped by many that the current feudal conditions online, where might-makes-right, may soon make place for the rule-of-law that will hopefully treat everyone equally. What form these laws will take is not at all clear yet, but it is hoped that they will represent a larger section of the population than the Barons who were represented in the original Magna Carta. Efforts, are underway  to engage with citizens world-wide for drawing up the rules for the web. The Web We Want orgainization is engaged in crowd sourcing efforts for the Magna Carta for the Web; the iRights coalition, which CaSMa is participating in, is exploring ways to better understand the needs and desires of young people; and hopefully governments and regional bodies will also make best efforts to listen to their citizens (we can always hope).

P.S. word of caution: any and all analogies between the social structures online and historical societies offline are doomed to crumble if analyzed too closely.

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