Web Summit: Big tech threatens online freedoms, warns Berners-Lee

Inventor of World Wide Web calls for 'contract for the web' requiring tech firms to respect data privacy

Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave says that he was "flattered" by other cities approaches to host the event, but that Lisbon "fits beautifully" with Europe's biggest technology conference. Video: Reuters

Online users are seeing their rights and freedoms threatened by big tech, according to the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee.

With half of the world’s global population expected to be online by next year, Mr Berners-Lee has launched a global campaign to protect people’s rights online and keep the web free. His “contract for the web” will require internet companies to respect data privacy and “support the best in humanity”.

Speaking at the opening of the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Monday, Mr Berners-Lee announced a new charter to deal with abuse, discrimination, political manipulation, and the centralisation of power online in a small number of big tech companies.

Mr Berners-Lee called on governments, companies and individuals to back a new “Contract for the Web” that would have “clear and tough responsibilities for those who have the power to make it better.”



More than 50 organisations have already voiced their support for the new initiative, including Google and Facebook.

Mr Berners-Lee said the world is “at a tipping point” with half of the global population expected to be online by May 2019. However, he said the rate of those going online was slowing, leading to a widening digital divide.

“Those of us who are online are seeing our rights and freedoms threatened,” he added, noting a number of threats, including threats to privacy.

Mr Berners-Lee, a computer scientist who invented the web in 1989, said his creation had changed the world for the good and bad. He said that early on, most of society assumed the web could only be a good thing, but that we have learned in recent years that isn’t wasn’t necessarily the case.

Rebuild trust

He said he wanted to rebuild trust in the web while also increasing internet access to those who aren’t currently connected.

Opening this year's conference, Web Summit co-founder and chief executive Paddy Cosgrave said technology was "turning upside down everything we thought was certain about the world, society, politics and life itself."

Close to 70,000 attendees from 159 countries are In Lisbon for year’s Web Summit, including around 1,000 Irish people

Close to 70,000 attendees from 159 countries are In Lisbon for year's Web Summit, including around 1,000 Irish people. Overall, 23 conferences are taking place across nine main stages and an estimated 1,200 speakers are expected, including Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Other speakers include European commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager, Samsung Electronics president Young Sohn, Stripe co-founder John Collison, Microsoft president Brad Smith, Tinder co-founder Sean Rad and United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres.

Web Summit begins in earnest on Tuesday morning with speakers including Slack co-founder Cal Henderson. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, who now leads online publishing platform Medium, will close the event on Thursday.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist