Why we need a contract for the web

It’s been 50 years this year since a group of computer scientists at UCLA exchanged the first message between computer networks as part of a project funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) set up by the US Department of Defense. This moment in the autumn of 1969 is widely credited as the internet’s birth. It took another 24 years until the World Wide Web appeared and made the internet accessible and meaningful to everyone.

As an entrepreneur and investor, I embraced the web and its promise early on. E-Commerce offered an unprecedented opportunity to reach new audiences, to revolutionise customer service, and to expedite product and service delivery in ways that had seemed like science fiction just a few years before. The 1990s felt like a golden age, and we were learning the ins and outs of this new technology by trial and plenty of error. There is no question that the internet has played a major role in spreading the Virgin brand around the world and is improving the Virgin experience for millions of customers.

A quarter century later, social media has added yet another layer of interaction to the internet, and many of us – yours truly included – use the various platforms and applications daily, if not more often, to share updates, stay in touch with friends and family, or to engage in debate on a wide range of important (and not so important) issues.

But somewhere along the way, things seem to have taken a dangerous turn for the worse. It feels the optimism and language of opportunity that welcomed the web in its early days has given way to dire warnings of a global digital network that has spun out of control, creating serious risks to our privacy, to human rights, and also to democracy itself. I have to say it’s impossible not to see the signs of that.

Not too long ago, I had a chance to discuss these issues over lunch with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and his wife Rosemary Leith. Both Tim and Rosemary feel strongly that the web’s capacity to be a force for good is under threat and that the free and open web we have all come to appreciate since the 1990s faces serious challenges – whether its uneven access and availability, the reckless misuse of people’s personal data, or the uncivil and polarising forms of discourse, fueled by misinformation and propaganda, that threaten the fabric of our societies.

Richard Branson, Tim Berners-Lee and his wife Rosemary

To chart a more positive course forward, the World Wide Web Foundation, which was started by Tim, yesterday launched the Contract for the Web, a comprehensive and global roadmap to “to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone”. The contract is an important and timely call to action for governments, business and the wider public to ensure  - through policy, advocacy and action – that the web of the future continues to deliver its benefits to all humanity. 

More than 80 different organisations have helped shape its content (including The New Now, a group of passionate young global leaders that Virgin helped launch), and I am proud to endorse the contract. Now the ball is in everyone’s court to bring it to life.

There is no doubt that the Web has been a major force for human development, a pathway for access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity, a platform to promote peace and inclusion and also to build communities to share and solve common challenges. But, as Tim says, “if we don’t act now — and act together — to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide and undermine, we are at risk of squandering that potential.” The time to act is now. 

Please endorse and support the Contract for the Web.

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