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We need a better web to help secure children’s basic rights

Web Foundation · November 20, 2019

This post was written by Adrian Lovett, President & CEO, World Wide Web Foundation.

As the World Wide Web and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both turn thirty, the web can help to secure children’s basic rights.

Three decades ago, as the 1980s came to an end, revolution was in the air. The Berlin wall came crashing down and the dust that rose from it carried the hopes of a generation of Germans for reunification and peace — and a sign of hope to a watching world. 

At the same time, 700 miles away at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, a young software engineer named Tim Berners-Lee was focused on his own revolution, triggered by the difficulties in sharing information between the computers in CERN’s vast network. Tim had written a memorandum to his boss called “Information Management: A Proposal”. In its modesty and apparent ordinariness, it could hardly have felt further from the history in the making under the Brandenburg Gate. And yet, the World Wide Web Tim envisioned in that memo would go on to change our world, expanding access to knowledge and freedom of expression more than any other development in modern times.

But there was one more quiet revolution underway in Geneva that November. While Tim was connecting the dots at CERN, over at the Palais des Nations, UN negotiators were concluding a ten-year process involving governments, activists and experts worldwide to negotiate a set of fundamental rights held by children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989. Since then, the Convention has become one of the most widely adopted human rights treaties and through its definition of children’s rights in the process, it has transformed millions of children’s lives across the globe.

While these were three separate phenomena, today they seem intertwined as one thread. The demolition of a barrier to the dreams of a new generation. The creation of a means by which those young people could access and share knowledge — and claim their rights — like never before. And a radical charter to articulate and defend those rights, for the youngest members of society.

Just over half of the world is now online and Unicef estimates that one in three internet users are children. All around us are examples of young people using the web to innovate, express themselves, share knowledge and connect with people globally in ways that were unimagined three decades ago.

But the web is not the unambiguous public good it was intended to be. Many children and young people don’t have it at all, and for those who do, it isn’t all good. Too many lives are blighted by harmful content, harassment, data breaches and the shocking increase in sexual abuse online – and children are the most vulnerable.  We need to fix the web.

That’s why it’s fitting that 30 years after the birth of the Web, the adoption of the Convention and the fall of the Wall, we are heading to Berlin to launch the Contract for the Web on November 25.

The Contract for the Web has brought together experts and citizens from around the world to develop a plan to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely accessible for every child and adult. This Contract offers a set of concrete commitments that will shape the technologies we use and the laws and regulations that govern them, for the better.

As we work to fix the web, we can make it an even more powerful tool in defence of children’s rights. The right to knowledge and information, privacy, freedom of expression, participation in public life — even the right to basic health — can all be enhanced and strengthened by the web.  Equally, the web’s darker side can threaten some of these same rights.

As we launch the Contract for the Web at this year’s Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, I hope we can summon the determined optimism of German citizens who brought down the wall, learn from the diligence of the drafters of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and be inspired by the genius and humanity of Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and gave it to the world for free. 

Today’s children have never known life before the web. We need to make it work better for them, and make their online experience accessible, safe and empowering. That would be great for children. It might just make a better web for all of us, too. 

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