It was British ingenuity that led to the development of the World Wide Wide 25 years ago today, and unfortunately it appears British guile will be responsible for its possible demise. The hopeful beginnings of the Web have turned sour. Our experience of free encylopedias, free global communications, free content, free universities, a knowledge explosion – is tempered by the knowledge that governments including our own are hoovering up our most personal data. Every day GCHQ has the capacity to process 21 petabytes of data a day, that’s 39 billion pieces of information. The state can pry into our video calls with our family; feels free to collect metadata that tells us if we’re visiting a cancer clinic (and to see whom), if we frequent gay clubs, or who our friends or associates are. The openness of the Web, where we share information to better humanity, is under seige. If we don’t act, the Web we have come to trust, will become ever more sinister.
25 years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee drafted a not immodest proposal for hyperlinked content that would become the Web. Written in biro, on his draft, a superior had noted ‘Vague but exciting’. Berners-Lee’s insight would revolutionise the way we shop, the way we interact and the way we think about information. In part, the genius of the Web was to see the links between different pieces of content and make it easy to distribute. Another often overlooked reason why the Web succeeded is that it is based on open standards that were free for everyone to use. Anyone can produce a website and no one has to pay Tim Berners-Lee a penny. This gift to the world faciliated an information revolution that has made it harder for the media moguls but given us mere mortals a real chance to learn as much as our brains can store. Simultaneously, as the Web became a greater part of our lives, connection speeds rose exponentially (I find it hard to explain just how slow a 14.4k modem is to anyone under 20), and so did the amount of data it was possible to transmit. It also made us liable to spill our private data across the Web. This, we have now learnt thanks to Edward Snowden, was an open invitation to GCHQ.
Much has changed since 12 March 1989. Our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, has collapsed. The rise of post-War Communism did not end liberal democracy (rather the opposite). Our fear that enemy would trigger a thermnonuclear war to end all human civilisation did not materialise. Yet the endless rise of intelligence agencies’ budgets continues unabated. This is not to downplay the very real threats we face, but the challenges from the age that the Web was inspired in, seem rather more pressing. We need to rethink the balance between digital rights and the powers of the state. This is why Tim Berners-Lee has called for a Digital Magna Carta, a digital bill of rights in every country that is a compact between government, corporations and individuals. Berners-Lee said today that threats to the internet such as mass state surveillance are threats to democracy:
“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”
How is that spirit of openness possible in a world where we say the state can invade the privacy of everyone – regardless of their innocence or guilt? The founders of the Web are also concerned over another possibility: that the open Web they have created will be eroded as more and more people go offline to protect their privacy. Increasing numbers of activists are using high-tech tools such as TOR or TAILS to encrpyt their internet browsing and email (there was a huge Cryptoparty in London organised by English PEN and Open Rights Group just a few weeks ago). If the state continues to invade our privacy, it is a real possibility that the Web could fragment into a series of highly encrpyted parallel networks. Or, as we see from sabre-rattling from Brazil, nations could “force data to come home”, meaning the global Web as we know it could be replaced by national Web(s).
That’s why we’re about to launch the Don’t Spy On Us campaign, a coalition of the leading human rights, privacy and freedom of expression organisations. You can sign up to the campaign here. In the spirit of the Web’s birthday, we’re calling for real openness about the scale of surveillance and the reforms to the law required to put surveillance on a clear legal footing. We want a proper independent inquiry, to report before the next general election. Then we want to see our MPs commit to reform. It’s time British politicians acted to get GCHQ under control. It’s taken 25 years to get the Web we want, it may not take much time at all to wreck it.
Mike Harris is Campaign Director of Don’t Spy On Us @mjrharris