We Need a More Ethical Web

This is a repost of something I originally posted to the Samsung Internet blog on Medium.

“Vague but exciting…” The web turns 30 this week.

This week, we have been celebrating the 30th anniversaryof the invention of the web. However, the celebration is tinged with anxiety about the current state of the world and the role the web has unwitting played in making it that way. The misuse of social media to control public opinion through the spread of propaganda, bot-enabled harassment campaigns and over-reliance on biased and simplistic algorithms for content promotion are some of the unexpected consequences of a world wide “web of information nodes in which the user can browse at will”.

In order for the web to continue to be beneficial to society, we need to include more ethical thinking when we build web applications and sites. The web is made up of a number of technologies and technical standards. HTML, CSS and JavaScript are often thought of as the web’s core set of technologies but there are a raft of other technologies, standards, languages and APIs that come together to form the “web platform.” One of the web platform’s differentiators has always been a strong ethical framework; for example an emphasis on internationalisationaccessibility and (more recently) privacy and security. These are often cited as some of the strengths of the web. The architecture of the web is that of a user agent, the browser, that balances between the needs of the application developers and the people using those applications. This lends itself well towards this more ethical approach by allowing you to choose a browser that meets your own needs (for example, with strong privacy protections).

It’s time for web platform makers to enlarge this ethical framework to include human rights, dignity and personal agency. We need to put human rights at the core of the web platform. And we need to promote ethical thinking across the web industry to reinforce this approach.

But what are some possible ethical principles we could apply to the web platform? What might be guiding the development and evolution of this platform over the next 30 years?

Last year, Anne Currie ran an amazing event in London, Coed:Ethics. It was a day-long conference dedicated to tech ethics that I was privileged to be able to attend. The conference was also intended as a call to action to spur attendees to do more. I found this event personally inspirational and I started to think of how I could apply some of this thinking to various efforts I’ve been involved with, including what we could do in the web standards community to raise the profile of ethics. In some ways, the Coed:Ethics was a call to technologists to put human rights at the core of what we do.

Since then, I’ve been working on some ideas for this as part of my work as co-chair of the W3C Technical Architecture Group. The goal is to create an ethical questionnaire in the same vein as the Security & Privacy Self-Review Questionnaire that was originally produced by Mike West and has been more recently edited by TAG member Lukasz Olejnik and Jason Novak. This questionnaire has been influential in getting people who develop specifications and new web technologies to think about security & privacy issues up front. An ethical questionnaire could play the same role, prompting people to think about the ethical implications of new web technologies at an early stage of development. Any work like this will need to be reviewed by a diverse community?—?a community more diverse than the current make-up of the web standards community.

Here are some possible ethical principles for the web:

  • There is one web. Web technology should not enable regional or national borders. People in one location should be able to view web pages from anywhere that is connected to the web.
  • The web should not be a detriment to society. When considering adding a new web technology to the web, it must be evaluated for the potential harm it could do to society and not only for its potential benefits to web developers.
  • The web must enforce fundamental human rights. The UN universal declaration of human rights sets out a framework for the rights that must be respected. The web must enable and not undermine these fundamental rights.
  • The web is for all people. Internationalisation and localisation are non-optional. Accessibility is non-optional. Low bandwidth networks and low specification equipment should be accounted for.
  • Security & Privacy are non-optional. This supports article 12 of the UN universal declaration of human rights and is already well supported by the security & privacy self-check document.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”?—?Article 19 of the UN universal declaration of human rights

  • The web must enable freedom of expression. The web should enable freedom of expression where it does not contravene other human rights and should not enable state censorship, surveillance or other practices that seek to limit this freedom. This principle must be balanced with respect for other human rights, and it should not be misconstrued that individual services on the web must therefore support unfettered speech (for example, hate speech).
  • The web must enable researching the truthfulness of information?—?and should also make it clear what the origin of information is. (Some work happened last year in the context of the W3C Credible Web community Group on this point.)
  • The web enhances individual agency. The web should empower the people using it, ahead of service and software developers.
  • The web must be a sustainable technology. The web, as a whole, including the data centers that support it, is a big consumer of power. New web technologies should not make this situation worse. Power consumption should be considered as a factor in introducing new technologies to the web.
  • The web is inspectable. The web was built on a “view source” principle, currently realised through robust developer tools built into many browsers. It should always be possible to determine how a web app was built and how the code works when using an inspector. Furthermore, it must be possible to audit and inspect web applications and run times for security, privacy or other considerations.
  • The web is multi-browser and multi-OS?—?for example, web technologies should not lend themselves to creation of web sites that work only in one browser.
  • People should be able to render web content as they want. For example, user-installed fonts, style sheets, screen readers, selective blocking of unwanted content or scripts. Through technologies such as browser extensions people must continue to be able to change web pages according to their needs.

Right now these are just some of the ideas that I have as an individual; built from my personal experiences where I have been privileged to be involved in the process of developing web standards. Refinement and review by a community of folks from diverse backgrounds needs to happen in order to make these into an inclusive “ethical checklist” for the web. Any comments? Additions? Subtractions? I’d love to hear them. You can leave comments here or ping me on Twitter or Mastodon for now.

I would like to thank Amy DickensAda Rose Cannon and Nicholas Herriot for their valuable input into this post.

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