Fight for the web is ‘one of the most important causes of our time’

Worldwide web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee writes impassioned open letter marking 30th anniversary of web

In an impassioned open letter marking 30 years of the worldwide web, its creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee said that while the web has had a positive effect on our lives, it has also “created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.

Berners-Lee said there are three main “sources of dysfunction” affecting the web, number one being malicious behaviours including hate speech, trolling and other forms of online harassment as well as state-sponsored hacking. He called out platforms that profit off users by rewarding clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation as well as the unintended side effects of how these services are designed, which has led to an increase in outrage and polarisation of online discourse.


In 1989, Berners-Lee originally envisioned the web as an information management system with the primary purpose of sharing scientific information with colleagues at CERN and beyond. The web has changed dramatically since this initial vision and Berners-Lee said he believed it can change further if people are willing to redesign systems to incentivise or facilitate less harmful and more positive interactions.

Rather than name-checking specific technology companies Berners-Lee stated: “You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.”


Digital frontier

Drawing on comparisons with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Law of Sea and the Outer Space Treaty he said the web, as a digital frontier for humanity, needed an equivalent, adding that "the fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time".

“Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.”

As the founder of non-profit organisation the Web Foundation, Berners-Lee created A Contract for the Web to work towards this purpose. Launched at last year's Web Summit in Lisbon the Contract is working towards signing up governments, companies and individuals who endorse its principles of an open, fair and democratic web. Results will be announced later this year.

Short-term profit

“[GOVERNMENTS] have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online. We need open web champions within government - civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web,” said Berners-Lee.

“Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind.”

Berners-Lee signed off on his open letter by saying that the web is for everyone and we all hold the power to change it, adding: “If we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”