WebWeWant Festival London: Long, challenging road ahead

London’s cultural hub, the Southbank Centre, played host to a very interesting festival on the weekend of September 27-28. Called the WebWeWant Festival, the two-day event saw various seminars and talks on the history and future of the World Wide Web, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The overall tone of the festival was centred on web privacy and how this young movement, called WebWeWant, has been started to “defend, claim and change the future of the Web.” According to its website, the campaign “is responding to threats to the future of the Web with a practical and positive vision — unleashing the power of people from around the world to defend, claim and change a Web that is for everyone.”

The overall motive is “to bring about real change at a national and global level.”

The festival was kick-started on Saturday by none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, 59, the creator of the World Wide Web as we know it, who has lent his support to the campaign.

Sir Berners-Lee spoke of how governments and powerful internet companies have broken down the openness of the web he created, how the basic principles behind it have been threatened, as have basic human rights such as free speech and right to assemble peacefully.

The Englishman listed the three steps of the WebWeWant campaign: to have a global crowdsourced discussion to reach a common understanding on issues such as censorship and spying; to expand the discussions to every jurisdiction; and finally to organise and implement all the projects and changes.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (third from left) and other panelists at the WebWeWant Festival.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee (third from left) and other panelists at the WebWeWant Festival. (Photo credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

As other speakers took to the stage, the discussion then expanded to the concept of Net Neutrality, which according to Thisisnetneutrality.org, “requires that the Internet be maintained as an open platform, on which network providers treat all content, applications and services equally, without discrimination.”

Nnenna Nwakanma from WebWeWant said that the web “is equal to e-humanity” and that “it is immoral to give access at the price of liberty. Privacy and sovereignty of people should be respected. Or else, it amounts to e-slavery.”

Katarzyna Szymielewicz, president of the Polish privacy rights organisation, Foundation Panoptykon, countered the argument that web privacy has to be sacrificed for the sake of national security, saying that privacy is a “tool for self-management” and doesn’t mean that you have something to hide.

When asked by the audience who was the single-biggest threat to privacy on the web, the panellists were concurrent on naming Google, who they said indulged in “indirect surveillance” as well.

This brought to mind Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s op-ed in the New York Times last year, where he wrote that “the advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism…every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China).”

Speaking of China, the Communist Party-ruled country’s “great firewall” warranted a separate discussion. The panellists, which included Dr Ning Wang, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, Lang Xiao, Research Analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media and Emilie Wang, Director of Public Relations at Shanghai Grand Theatre Arts Group, said that the “great firewall” was both physical and psychological.

Last year, per Reuters, China unveiled controversial measures to stop the spread of what the government calls irresponsible rumours online, threatening three years in jail if such posts receive more than 5,000 visitors. Thus, people think twice before posting anything remotely contentious online. One line that stuck out from the talk was that self-censorship is sometimes harsher than that by external forces.

However, the panellists were of the opinion that the firewall isn’t going to work in the long-term as it would take a massive effort from the government to monitor 600 million and counting users. Chinese web users are already bypassing the firewall by using Virtual Private Network (VPN) accounts that are available for purchase. These accounts enable the user to access an IP address from the US, UK or other countries where the web is more open.

Overall, the WebWeWant festival was a credible attempt by the organisers to make people aware and vocal about alarming privacy issues and the growing clampdown of the web. However, bar a couple of really insightful talks, there were a few discussions that drifted off topic and did not address the subject properly, while some just didn’t create the impact that the organisers would’ve hoped for.

Nonetheless, it is a good start and the organisers plan to have another festival in November, followed by a third in May next year. The fledgling movement needs to get bigger and better if it hopes to make a real impact.

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