Article by Francesca Bria and Elettra Bianchi Dennerlein. The original article was published at the Nesta website.
The 2015 Web We Want festival edition launched with a Q&A evening session on Thursday the 28th with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee discussed the future of the web and his vision of instituting a successful Bill of Rights for the Web.
During the opening interview, Tim Berners Lee covered a broad range of topics such as limiting the surveillance powers of State Agencies and corporations; providing equal Internet access as basic human right; re-appropriation of data and data control by citizens, privacy and security by design; Net neutrality and copyright reform.
The interview took the audience through a journey from the time when Sir Tim Berners-Lee first invented the Web as a real open, free, and neutral platform that empowered individuals to the current situation in which “snooping and blocking gives too much power to Governments and companies”.
At this crucial crossroad, Sir Tim advocates, it is necessary to shift to a different path and crowd source a Bill of Rights for the Web, written in a collaborative and democratic way, integrating ideas from all citizens and qualified experts.
Tim Berners-Lee advocates the need to modify the legislation at national level in order to extend citizens’ digital rights, and protect them from abuses and dominant powers. Another issue that is very close to Tim Berners Lee’s heart is creating awareness amongst technologists and developers, so that they can collaborate in building distributed architectures that put at the centre the question of net neutrality, data ownership, and data portability, giving citizens the ability to control their personal data and the way it is shared and used on the web.
The interview set the opening scene for the panels, workshops and activities that followed over the weekend. The festival has been a great opportunity to incentivize public debate, and foster citizen awareness around the need for a Web Magna Carta.
On Friday 29th, an unexpected opening of the festival featured a live broadcast with Q&A session with Julian Assange interviewed by Baroness Beeban Kidron.
The editor in chief and public face of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, joined live from the Ecuadorian Embassy where three years ago he was granted diplomatic asylum. During his political asylum, Julian Assange kept running Wikileaks and continued to publish classified materials, articles, and books about the Digital Era we are living in, including the latest book “When Google met WikiLeaks”, documenting his meeting with CEO of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt.
Assange started his talk with a provoking statement: “… We are being pushed into a kind of Google Singaporean shopping mall. That is how we will live our daily lives in the future”.
His intension was to emphasise the emergence of what has been named “surveillance capitalism”, in which the ability to monitor, aggregate and monetize personal and social data has become a key corporate asset, thus also shaping the geopolitical governance of the world.
The questions posed by Baroness Kidron delved in two central aspects of the present and future of the Web: transparency and privacy. Assange argued that both transparency and privacy in their current framework seem to be emptied of their real meaning that have more to do with autonomy and power.
Today transparency implies our ability to know and understand what is happening at a global level, and to be able to police powerful institutions and hold them accountable. The question of privacy is strongly related to people’s capacity to exercise their autonomy. Therefore the question for Assange is to subvert the dominant power logic by devolving power and autonomy to people.
For Assange the future of the Web needs to be understood in relation to the current radical shift in governance modalities due to the unprecedented surveillance and concentration of power. The scenario outlined by Assange could make us quite pessimistic about our ability to collectively shape positive future alternatives. However, as also argued by Assange himself, people should be ready to adapt and fight back to keep their autonomy and regain power.
Beyond the talks, free workshops, arts installations and playful interactions were available during the whole weekend alongside digital arts and performances. Both children and adults were given the possibility to explore themes of community, creativity, activism, learning and play.
Together with Nick Pickles from Twitter, Amanda Long from Consumers International and DJ Spooky, the discussion touched on some important aspects such as consumer rights, data re-appropriation, the role of businesses and corporations to help outline the discourse that will shape the Web Magna Carta.
The speakers made very clear that the fundamental lack of privacy and data protection on the web requires legislators to advance possible solutions to protect citizens and consumers that will serve as the basis for the development of a Bill of Rights.
As Tim Berners-Lee argued “There are many incentives commercially for companies to track and analyse everything about people, to control their life experiences, to control where they shop …because it is very valuable to track what they think.”
The panel ended with a clear statement to halt the government’s plans to extend the country’s surveillance powers.
D-CENT took part in the panel on Saturday afternoon on “Digital Government”.
The panel was hosted by Tom Chatfield, with Francesca Bria as a speaker alongside Chi Onwurah, British Labour Party politician, Tom Loosemore, Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service, and Michael Sani, CEO of Bite The Ballot.
The panel discussed and raised crucial points on the need to design digital systems and institutions that serve people’s needs, the imperative to fight corruption, and balance the power that corporations and governments hold in order to avoid ending up in a digital government that resembles a “digital panopticon”.
According to Francesca Bria, the concentration of political and corporate power can be confronted focusing on collectively building the next generation democratic institutions. Francesca stressed the potential that open source and privacy-aware digital technologies offer to redesign the democratic process, and to make political institutions more open, and able to tap into the collective intelligence of citizens.
The coordinator of D-CENT, discussed some of the empirical results of D-CENT, bringing to the attention a new wave of democratic innovation happening across the world, such as the emergence of new citizen-led movements in Spain, a growing role for citizens initiatives, and referenda in Finland and Ireland, collaborative law making, and participatory budgeting in Iceland, Brazil, and across the world.
This new type of politics could help to engage millions of people currently de-politicised and disenfranchised, and to provide them with ways to directly influence decisions, thus opening up space for meaningful conversations and citizens deliberations. Youth movements around the world are inspired by bottom up digital networks, claiming transparency, democratic engagement, and new accountable digital institutions, whilst they lost hope in the traditional political system that seems no longer able to provide positive visions for the future. That leaves a gap to be addressed by the new 21st century politics that can target a much younger age group.
Thus the task is to build next generation democratic institutions and platforms that are hybrid models bringing together old and new forms of politics, fusing representative and direct democracy, physical and digital interactions, to transform the relationship between citizens and government.
To save autonomy and to reenergise democracy and the public space, the public must be given the power to participate in designing those alternative systems, underpinned by a new Bill of Rights for the Web.