What does the good web look like?

what do the good web look like?
what do the good web look like?

The Good Web Festival kicked off today, a virtual festival pulling together politicos, security techs, big business, journalists and data scientists. The festival is all about making the web a better place.

While many of the sessions were subject to Chatham House rules for obvious reasons, the opener was available to all and it was about what the ‘good web’ should really look like.

It was a zoom panel debate with Damian Collins MP, Delphine Halgand, Peter Pemeranzev and Natasha Kimani. The event was chaired by Alex Krasodomski from the event organiser, Demos.

The panel was well put together, looking at each panellist’s ideas for a ‘good web’ and issues which need to be tackled, followed by discussion, debate and Q&A from the audience.

Damian Collins, well known for having an interest in big tech and the internet from work on the DCMS Select Committee and his Infotagion podcast was first up. To him a good web was a place where people had a positive experience and a fair chance. He would like to see disinformation reduced and thought a key way to do this was by making more companies take responsibility for the content on their platform, right now they appear happy to host anything for clicks and views, even if it could cause harm, confusion or disruption.

He described internet regulation not as a way to stem creativity and freedom of speech but similar to safety mechanisms on a car, a seatbelt, an airbag but the car can still function as normal.

Playing into that idea Delphine Halgand of the Signals Network (an organisation which supports whistle blowers who share public interest info with press) focussed on how the good web to her is a great tool. She discussed how important it was in the Arab Spring, helping to circumvent censorship and traditional media messaging.

However this was also an are she would like to see improved, citing the abuse journalists receive online, that social movements built online can come at a high price as arrested Vietnamese bloggers can testify and that in some cases such as in Mexico, those sharing information can be murdered.

While she did not want to see the creation of separate ‘webs’ like what we have seen in some heavily regulated countries, she also raised concerns about when the web is completely unregulated it can be difficult to raise concerns about imbalances of power, allowing big tech to amass and use data, such as Amazon moving into the health sphere. Delphine felt a more democratic oversight on dominant companies and states which control public information ecosystems would help, an example she gave was allowing people to see what the most viewed content was in different countries. Finally she felt that while regulating content, boosting access to the web and halting capitalist and state surveillance and oppression was needed, we should also continue to embrace life away from the web, be it in entertainment, work and education or social interaction so there is always a balance.

Natashia Kimani while agreeing with much of what was said also brought some different views to the table, particularly over web providers and who really benefits. In Africa it can be incredibly expensive to access the internet limiting use to only those who can afford it. Both web providers and states themselves had curbed activism and shut down platforms having healthy debate.

She felt we are often shaped by what we engage with, so the web needs to carry varied views and lifestyles not just white, male, silicon valley types who can sometimes see that stereotypes are never challenged because it may affect the advertising stats. Natashia felt there was a real argument to be had between presence on the web and power on web, which she hopes will continue as more African narratives begin to be shared and accepted more widely across the world.

Peter Pomeranzev threw in a few curveballs, recognising that restraint may be required but at the cost of success. While liberal democracies are about freedom, rights and producing successful societies, companies and states are amassing power though data and this is our next big challenge. While we all strive for success, those holding the data are winning because they can create policies and products to make us more efficient, smarter, faster etc..

It was a really interesting idea which picks up on some of what we see right now but could turn ‘black mirror’ very quickly. If data can predict the best job, housing, partner and hobbies for you to live a ‘successful’ life would you take it or would you still prefer your own freedom of choice? Deep thoughts indeed.

The panel then touched on a wide variety of web-based topics from the online harms bill and digital markets unit in the UK to what regulation is taking place all around the world. It was clear there is a move towards ending self-regulation and there is a rise in digital unions but like with any new technology from newspapers, to tv and radio, who will really hold the power on what is right and what is wrong to be broadcast and more importantly who should dictate the access to that technology. All agreed the pandemic had helped move arguments forward and helped build further worldwide bonds between community, world and company leaders who could now meet more easily online.

It was a really interesting hour with a big focus on the power of journalism and individuals making change through social media movements as both positive and negative, highlighting state use being fantastic when considering messaging during the pandemic but also negative when considering propaganda and disnformation can easily spread.

Overall it was a fantastic start to a great day of debate, discussion and networking from the Good Web Festival. Well done guys!

Recommended reads from the panel:

The work of Tristan Harris

Hitler and Stalin book by Laurence Rees

This is Not Propaganda book by Peter Pomerantsev

Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet is transforming Kenya

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