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Are WEF’s attendees ready to fight for the free, open and equal Web?

Web Foundation · January 20, 2016

“We stand on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a revolution driven by the  Internet of Things, increased connectivity, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, innovation in real time with instant data.” That is the picture being painted by World Economic Forum (WEF) as business and political leaders meet in Davos to discuss some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

But does this vision reflect reality? According to WEF, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the next phase of industrialisation following the information technology boom of the last century. The concept: innovation at a speed never seen before, driven by the Internet.

Certainly, businesses want this vision to be a reality, and one in which they stay competitive and profit from these innovations. Another wave of startups and big ideas like those we saw in the 1990s could present a myriad of new economic and social opportunities.

But this hypothesis rests on a powerful tool: The Web. The Third Industrial Revolution took off because anyone, anywhere could create a website without permission. Activists, entrepreneurs and corporations alike could collaborate instantly on a level playing field, without fear of unwarranted state surveillance. Users could express their new ideas freely without repercussions or the need for licenses and fees.

But today, nearly 60% of the world’s population is still not online. And, as research by the International Monetary Fund has shown, the technological progress we’ve made overall has not benefited everyone equally: a premium on workers with IT skills and stagnating wages for manual work has been a driver of income inequality. Can we truly hang a “mission accomplished” banner on the third phase of industrialisation if the majority of the world is either totally excluded from it, or is worse off because of it?

In fact, the Web today is facing so many threats that those not yet connected might never experience the economic and social opportunity of the free and open Web the developed economies enjoyed. That is why we need allies in the private sector to help us protect it.

And so we ask companies at WEF: Do you truly believe in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Will you help us make sure it benefits everyone? Are you willing to help us fight for a free and open Web to power it? Or is the golden age of the free, open, collaborative, creative Web behind us?

Today, many large Internet companies make decisions that can affect businesses and individuals  globally. As governments seek to increase surveillance, rein in free expression online, undermine encryption and carve the Web up into national silos, companies can help fight back with powerful advocacy and changes in company policies.

The mission is huge – in scope and in complexity – and it is hard to know where to begin. We asked our partners in civil society around the world for their thoughts on the most important thing companies could do to help protect and advance the free and open Web. Reflecting on their feedback, we’re proposing four pillars for the Web for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Companies must:

  1. Commit to fair taxation of the digital economy. Publish what companies earn and pay in tax in every jurisdiction (county-by-country reporting). Stop practices that lead to profits being offshored or shifted to tax havens. The resulting tax revenues will help governments to invest in enhancing the digital ecosystem.
  2. Advocate for an end to bulk surveillance and commit to transparency on surveillance and take-downs. Advocate for the reform of domestic and international law to eliminate indiscriminate surveillance and to ensure independent oversight and accountability in the use of national security powers. Publish data at regular intervals about the number of government requests they receive to remove, block, restrict, or prioritise content, plus the number or percentage complied with and inform users when they receive a government request to hand over their data.
  3. Ensure personal control of personal data. Recognise rights to protection of personal data and commit to making it portable and interoperable across platforms. Entities that collect data must do so expressly, with full disclosure of purposes and use, and should give customers rights to protection and control of their personal data. Simplify terms and conditions for company access to data.
  4. Stand up for encryption. Implement end to end encryption, while also taking proactive steps to enable small and medium-sized businesses and developing world users to overcome barriers to SSL use.

There is so much more companies could do to help protect and advance the free and open Web, but these four pillars are a solid starting point. We welcome comments, suggestions, hopes and fears in the discussion here and on social media. To get us started, here is a selection of comments from our partners on what message they would like to share with companies attending WEF:

The Internet is a space for the public interest and exercising human rights – this cannot be forgotten when we look at its economic benefits. We can all work together to advance and protect the free and open Web.” – Amalia Toledo, Fundacion Karisma, Colombia

The Internet economy thrives through openness. Going any other way will only serve the top 1%, leaving the rest of the economy crushed.” – anonymous

As much as the Internet will raise the world to greater heights in future, my fear is the growing number of women and girls becoming victims of abuse via the Internet through online sexual harassment, stalking and revenge porn, with a lasting impact on their lives, careers and self-esteem. Internet Service Provider companies need to come up with strategies to improve the safeguards against this kind of behaviour, and ensure that women who fall victim to online harassment have a way to address it quickly.” – Irene Murungi, WOUGNET, Uganda

To fully unleash its economic,social and democratic potential, the Internet should remain a space of freedom, borderless creation and cooperation.” – Julie Owono, Internet Sans Frontieres, France & Cameroon

We wish to have a free and open Internet, where rights are guaranteed, where all individuals are given the chance to be part of new developments and where opportunities are made available, without fear of his/her safety.” – anonymous

When our founder, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, created the Web, he decided to give it away as a public good. To power the next phase of innovation, we must ensure that all of the Web is open to and accessible by all of the people, all of the time. Only in this spirit can the full economic and social potential of the next phase of industrialisation be realised.

Join the discussion on Twitter @webfoundation and Facebook and tell us how you think companies can help advance and protect the free and open Web for the social and economic benefit of everyone.

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