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The future of the web: policy pathways to an online world for everyone

Web Foundation · May 2, 2022

This post was written by Chief Web Advocate Nnenna Nwakanma and Director for Policy Katherine Townsend. Follow Nnenna on Twitter @nnenna. Follow Katherine on Twitter @DiploKat.

On April 28, we celebrated #GirlsInICT day. This was also the day that the United States and 60 governments chose to launch their Declaration for the Future of the Internet, for online spaces that are “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure” and, we would respectfully include, are affordable and provide meaningful access for everyone. The web should be a place where creativity flourishes and innovation thrives; but far too frequently, our online world is a space that brings harm to vulnerable communities. As a research-driven policy organization, we at the Web Foundation are encouraged by this Declaration, and by other legal frameworks proliferating around the world. Here’s a look at initiatives that seek to drive the future of the web toward its intended goal of being for everyone. 

Declaration for the Future of the Internet

Led by the United States, the Declaration for the Future of the Internet establishes principles to protect human rights on the internet; maintain a global, inclusive, and affordable internet; establish trust in the digital ecosystem; and maintain the multistakeholder model of internet governance. These principles include a commitment to promote online safety and combat violence online, including sexual and gender based violence as well as child sexual exploitation, and to make the internet a safe and secure place for everyone, particularly women, children, and young people. Other principles in the declaration aim to protect vulnerable communities. These declarations align closely with our flagship initiative, the Contract for the Web, launched in 2019 and featuring nine principles of action for a better web developed collaboratively for government, private sector, and civil society. As the US joins the EU and other stakeholders in developing their own declaration to make the web a safe place for all users, the Web Foundation seeks to serve as a partner in amplifying voices of vulnerable communities whose perspectives must drive accountability for these initiatives. 

Digital Services Act 

The EU’s proposed Digital Services Act includes a number of obligations for online platforms that seek to fundamentally shape how users experience the web. Although the regulation only applies to Europe, the new rules will inevitably affect how these online platforms do business around the world. The DSA makes efforts to protect vulnerable web users by taking actions like banning targeted advertising for children and on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political views. The regulation also requires platforms to make it easy for users to report illegal services and content online, and includes mechanisms for users to challenge the content moderation practices of platforms. These reforms attempt to make the web a safer place for users, including vulnerable users. Although the text of the DSA has not yet been finalized, the political institutions of the EU recently reached a political agreement on many of the central issues of the legislation. The Web Foundation supports reforms to make the web a safer place for all users, particularly vulnerable communities, and we will be watching closely as the text of the DSA is finalized. 

Online Safety Bill

The U.K. Online Safety Bill applies new obligations to online platforms that allow user-generated content, as well as search engines. Penalties for violating obligations include fines of up to ten percent of revenue, or even being blocked. While the bill is still under revision and evaluation, the current provisions primarily center on protecting children from harmful material and interactions, and provides requirements for ease of reporting and response. We are encouraged by the specific push to remove illegal content, as outlined in Contract for the Web Principle 2, and the relevance to supporting better technologies and strong communities, Principles 6 and 8. However, we are concerned that iterations on the bill consistently omit edits included by experts that incorporate provisions for those who face outsized harm online, particularly women of color, and non-male persons overall. We can’t make our online world safer if we don’t recognize the realities of the current state of the web: the web we have is not the web we want, for girls, for women, for any of us. We must work for regulations, platforms, and community engagement that recognize and counter online gender based violence. 

At the Web Foundation, we believe that the future of the web, the web we want, is a worldwide web. As governments around the world, companies at headquarters and on the frontlines, and civil society from academica to foundations to social entrepreneurs consider our online future, we must do so in a way that ensures that those who have been most targeted, most harassed, and kept from decision-making are placed at the center to carry the work forward. But we know there is more work to be done. The bills and declarations are not perfect, and all of them require consistent engagement and partnerships to ensure accountability, but these commitments can be part of the urgent work ahead to continue to improve the web. As Nnenna shared on the panel discussion at the launch of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, the internet was not built—it is still being co-created. It is a work in progress, and one that we all have a stake in and a role to play. 

We are glad to continue this work of co-creating the future of the web and internet with partners around the world: with the UN Tech Envoy and digital cooperation partners to ensure meaningful access and build a global digital compact that includes civil society from around the world; and with Simply Secure, 3×3, and others to fight for a web that is free from deceptive design and supports the growth of trusted design. We are grateful to be working with UN Women, and with partners Social Finance, Glitch, and many other leaders countering online gender based violence, and across the globe with the Women’s Rights Online network to ensure a web that is a safe place to flourish for all genders. We will continue to be champions in this space, pushing multistakeholder collaborations for research-driven policy to build a web that is for everyone.  

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