What is the web we want?

By Rupert Bowater

This weekend was the third Web We Want Festival at the Southbank Centre, London - a festival investigating the past 25 years of the web and its possible future, inspired by the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), and produced in partnership with Sir Tim's World Wide Web Foundation.

Towards a Magna Carta for the web

The programme of events started on Friday but the main draw for me was Saturday morning’s panel, chaired by TBL himself. The Magna Carta has its 800 year anniversary in June and I guess you can see why he chose to call for a Magna Carta for the web, rather than, say, a Bill of Rights. Just the same it isn’t perhaps the most readily understood term for something that is intended to be global. Besides, doesn’t the web already have a small number of powerful barons, controlling rich fiefdoms, who cut private deals with rulers?

Jude Kelly (@JudeKellySBC), artistic director at the South Bank, introduced the session and drew our attention to the exhibition on PeaceNiche that shared the stage with the speakers. PeaceNiche promote democratic discourse in Pakistan and their founder Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated last month, reminding us of the privilege we enjoyed in discussing whatever we want.

TBL has laid out previously how he wants the web to stay open, for all of us to respect our rights and responsibilities online and how we should fight the creation of infrastructure that could underpin a future police state, and he briefly reprised some of these themes.

First up from the panel was Amanda Long, director general of Consumers International (@consumers_int) who coordinate input from more than 200 consumer rights bodies across the world. She gave a great potted history of their fight for consumer rights and how badly legislation lags behind digital developments - a situation made worse by the US and others killing their attempt to add data protection to the revised consumer protection guidelines being developed at the UN.

For Amanda, owning our own data is a key priority. She described how most of us follow a "tick, click and hope for the best" policy with online Ts and Cs, not looking at what we are signing away. This is as true for apps as it is for purchases.

Amanda also reminded us that for most of the world it is not a case of "the web we want" but "we want the web", with two thirds of the world having no access.

Nick Pickles (@nickpickles), formerly the director of Big Brother Watch and now UK policy director at Twitter, talked about how Twitter is trying to increase transparency - suing the US government in an attempt to allow it to share more information with users about requests for their data. They are also trying to walk the line between protecting anonymity (for instance, image metadata is now stripped out by default) and preventing online bullying by restricting free speech to some degree. I think there is some way to go here, judging by the experiences of Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) who has a full-time employee tallying death threats to her (relating to #gamergate) and can’t get Twitter to verify her account and distinguish it from sociopathic impersonators.

Nick also called for more diversity in tech and pointed out that the problem has deep roots, with half of secondary schools not having any girls taking A-level Physics. TBL chipped in with the benefits of getting more girls - and boys - to code and gave a shout out to the Coder Dojo programming clubs, also present at the festival.

DJ Spooky (@djspooky), aka Paul Miller, "Musician and artist", gave an entertaining, scattershot run-through of some current web issues. He termed TBL "the Grandmaster Flash for web geeks" and went on to describe the web as having a "hip hop aesthetic". I think he meant that it’s based on sharing, and aids cut-ups (he took his stage name from a William Burroughs novel), collaging and collaboration. He put a good case for artists’ involvement in the direction the web takes and I think artists like James Bridle (@jamesbridle) - whose Citizen Ex is part of the festival - have a great role to play in helping us get a handle on many of the abstract concepts involved.

A restless, energetic presence TBL sat cross-legged on the stage and pointed out that there has never been greater incentive for both governments and corporations to try to control us, by controlling the web - something he graphically illustrated with a chokehold. He compared Facebook’s Internet.org offering for developing countries to the days when AOL nearly buried the world in CDs, as it pushed its own walled-garden version of the web. "Just say no" to services like this is his advice.

Data was the strongest theme of the session though - who owns it and where it sits. TBL wrapped up with a clarion call for everyone to control their own data and that "my data belongs to ME".

Jude Kelly returned to say that now we needed to widen the debate beyond geeks - who, by dictionary definition, are just interested in a subject for its own sake. Maybe a better message is that the web can be better and freer the more that disparate groups act together and combine their various strengths. The @WorkWeWant group in the Festival Hall, drawing attention to the "serfing of the web", are one of many who are doing just that.

Digital reflections

Next was an entertaining, slide-free talk from author and tech philosopher @TomChatfield looking at how our close relationship to modern tech affects us. He bravely took the lunchtime slot, despite citing the Kahneman experiment that showed what mean judges hunger can make of us. There was enough food for thought to keep us happy and I was glad that Tom revealed I’m not the only one to get phantom messages from my "intimate computing" device. However, I put that down to me misreading the twitches and spasms of an ageing body rather than being the product of Skinnerian conditioning by my own phone.

"I still remember when I first met my iPhone" began a nice riff on the relationship we have with our smart phones ending with "I realised I had become my phone’s bitch". Tom argued that we should take care to reassess how much the modern world pushes us to an always-on, oft-interrupted state - and carve out quiet time for ourselves.

He got the audience talking about the pros and cons of our phones - for me the strongest is that they exacerbate my weakness for favouring the urgent over the important - and helped tease out the expectations implicit in the tools we use.

His key conclusions:

  • There’s no such thing as a neutral tool.
  • We should be tech gourmets not fast food eaters, and take care to make conscious choices about our relationship with tech.

Digital government

Tom Charfield now chaired the digital government panel. 

Tom Loosemore (@tomskitomski), deputy director at the Government Digital Service, gave the familiar message of how tech is not the hard bit in digital transformation. Web culture and values are "orthogonal" to traditional government culture. Ministers are few and civil servants are many - key digital decisions are often not made by ministers. But both groups make many poor decisions due to their limited understanding of digital - something we all have to help change.

Francesca Bria (@francesca_bria), EU coordinator of the D-CENT project on network democracy, gave a quick world tour of disparate initiatives from the collaborative creation of Iceland’s constitution to the new groups that have taken control of six Spanish cities. She called for action to combat surveillance capitalism and the digital panopticon.

Michael Sani (@MichaelSani), chief executive of Bite The Ballot gave an inspiring summary of how he moved from "I don’t vote, politics doesn’t affect me" to encouraging half a million people to vote, with a 74% conversion rate on material they produced for £200! They drove a spike of over 150,000 online registrations in one day.

Bite the Ballot focuses on online engagement to drive offline action by creating tools like Verto - "Tinder for politics" - helping both to get people directly engaged with policy and parties and, hopefully, feed back into real world contact by showing how many people in your area think as you do.

@ChiOnwurah, shadow cabinet office minister, made much of a pledge to work to make our data our own and called for universal digital suffrage - now some people have to turn to food banks as they have been sanctioned for not signing on, online. She said that the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of Silk Road, marked the death knell of the days of the web as the Wild West. I think those days are long gone; what we may be seeing now is the start of the web as Westworld, a dystopian corporate theme park.

Many audience "questions"  in the day had been little more than rambling expositions and we now hit a nadir as an audience member introduced themselves (always a warning sign) and then tried at some length to micromanage how the panel would respond - looking ahead to what they’d want to see in 10 years. Michael Sani went for e-voting at the local as well as national level. The others all still went for all citizens being able to see all the data held on them, a return to the theme of the morning panel.

I very much agree that we should get to see the data held on us and in parallel reduce the quantity and intrusiveness of data collection. If you do too, check out the Open Rights Group. As it is, we are putting in place all the apparatus for a police state - it is no coincidence that the NSA, without irony, adopted the Stasi’s motto of: "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear." As bad as that is, and as hard as it must be to answer big questions on the hoof, I wish we’d seen something with wider ambition. Something of the sort hinted at in Francesca’s overview: tech facilitating people meeting people and taking action - not just people meeting data. Come to that, maybe the data we really need to see is about power and its connections, as Francesca indicated.

The Web We Want

Saturday’s events closed out with the Grumbling Fur Time Machine Orchestra - looking like a pairing of Chewbacca and Frank the demonic rabbit figure from Donnie Darko - accompanying Mark Titchner’s video work. I tried to get a snap of any one of the huge words being thrown up on screen but could only ever get the ‘AND’ linking them. At the Web We Want I think the AND was covered in other sessions, in a wide-ranging programme but that’s it for me this year.

The whole Web We Want Festival event has a really nice vibe, with a great range of activities and workshops, many for kids. Organisation isn’t always all it might be but the staff are lovely and there are plenty of them, so there is always someone to ask. I’ve only skimmed the surface here and it’s well worth looking out for other events - or you can join their campaign at webwewant.org.

Rupert Bowater (@RupertLB) is a content strategist and all-round digital dabbler at Binary Vision. His shirts offend more people than his views and he co-organises London Web Standards.

Header image is of the Royal Festival Hall built in Minecraft by James of Blockworks.