Tech Leaders Weigh In on Tim Berners-Lee’s “Contract for the Web”

Xconomy National — 

Looking back over the past two years, it seems that public perceptions of tech companies have shifted, compared with the eager acceptance that often prevailed as innovations from these businesses transformed social interactions, transportation, and other aspects of life.

In early 2017, a more critical mood began to take hold as Uber’s allegedly biased employment practices and management style were scrutinized. Later that year, public concerns expanded to the core value of Internet company products themselves, following revelations about Facebook’s role in spreading false and divisive election-related messages and its sharing of millions of individual user profiles with outside companies including political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Data privacy remained a continuing theme throughout 2018.

In November, one of the key innovators who laid the technological foundations for today’s immense online universe sounded an alarm about the damage he felt was being done to individuals and society by a substantial portion of Web activity. Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web, called on companies, governments, and individuals to help draw up a new “Contract for the Web,” and build some voluntary guardrails.

“The changes we’ve managed to bring (via the Web) have created a better and more connected world,” Berners-Lee (pictured above) said in a blog post in September. “But for all the good we’ve achieved, the Web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”

The central ideas in the proposed “Contract for the Web” include insuring access to the Internet for all, avoiding government censorship, and protecting the rights of individuals to privacy and the control of their own data. Companies are urged to “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst, so the Web really is a public good that puts people first.” The campaign to formulate a full Web contract is being shepherded by Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have expressed support. (Meanwhile, Berners-Lee is also tackling these issues on another front: he’s co-founder of a new Boston-area startup, Inrupt, aimed at developing and supporting tools to give Web users more control over their data and privacy.)

Xconomy asked a number of prominent tech leaders to comment on this effort to mitigate the impacts of tech companies on individual privacy, national and regional strife, and other domains. We asked, “If you were helping to write the ‘Contract for the Web,’ what provisions or principles would you propose? If you are a business leader, would your company honor these principles?”

Here are their answers, shared via e-mail:

David Chang, CEO, Gradifi, Boston:

I’ve had a lot of time to think about the nature of the Web since none of the five startups I’ve been part of during the past 15-plus years could have existed without it. What’s more, as an advisor to Tim Berners-Lee’s recent efforts to reinvent the Web, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges and the opportunities we all face. As we’ve seen, information is worthless—in fact can be harmful—unless it’s both accurate and can be shared, so a “Contract for the Web” can jumpstart a movement to ensure that the Web continues to be a way for people and organizations to connect for the next 30 years.

There are several key provisions or pledges that companies, organizations, and individuals can make. First, let’s agree on common definitions, or a schema, for data interoperability. Companies view the same data object in different ways—a name is not a name. This wastes time and causes unnecessary friction. Second, let’s respect the source of data and attribute information to its original source. Finally, let’s make a pledge to “do no harm” and create standards that companies agree to respect. One such standard would revolve around the privacy of the owner of the data. If I no longer want my employment history to appear on LinkedIn, I should be able to easily remove that history.

A Contract for the Web would help us join its founder, Tim Berners-Lee, in its reinvention.

Rana el Kaliouby, CEO and co-founder, Affectiva, Boston:

I believe that technology must become empathetic and responsive to our needs, by being able to understand all things human.

As we spend more and more of our time online, and A.I. takes roles traditionally held by humans, we need to outline a new social contract for the Internet, and between people and A.I. I believe that two-way trust is at the center of this social contract—not just people being able to trust technology or A.I., but A.I. trusting its human counterparts in return. But mutual trust between A.I. and people can only be achieved if technology is built with an ability to understand all things human and respond accordingly, showing understanding and empathy.

This is a principle I would certainly uphold as a leader of a technology company—not only encouraging my employees to demonstrate these qualities in the technology we develop, but also in their personal lives.

But this needs to be a bigger conversation beyond the company level. We need commitments from tech giants, startups, government organizations, academia, and beyond to outline best practices and principles for ethical development and use of all the emerging technologies we now have at our disposal. To that end, my company Affectiva is an active member of organizations such as the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, alongside founding companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, as well as the World Economic Forum’s Council of Young Global Leaders, to have these discussions and outline standards for ethical A.I.

Michael Girdley, managing director of Geekdom Fund, San Antonio, TX:

Mr. Berners-Lee is an academic and seems a very nice man. This just seems a flawed idea from the beginning to me.

Efforts like his are very difficult in practice. For example, how do you create a set of rules that works for large and small tech companies? How do you build one that works for Google and Salesforce, which are two radically different businesses? That’s pretty much impossible to accomplish.

Are we even solving the right problem? If companies like Facebook were to operate with a high level of integrity, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. Apple and Microsoft appear to be able to be good citizens without another set of rules being created. This isn’t about the companies themselves. It’s about the *people* running those companies. Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Theranos—those are all broken entities because the people running them are ethically broken.

Venky Ganesan, partner at Menlo Ventures, Menlo Park, CA:

All tech companies, whether they be consumer, enterprise, startup, or a Fortune 500 company, will need to prove that they can earn the public’s trust in 2019.

After seeing the very public and very negative backlash felt by the likes of Facebook and Google for their high-profile data breaches, it will be important for … Next Page »

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