Can ordinary people get fired up over internet governance? Web We Want festival says yes

This weekend will see the start of the Web We Want festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Its organizers hope it will spark a movement that’s in some ways comparable to environmentalism.

That may be a tall order, but — as I reported back in March – the Web We Want campaign, timed to run 25 years after the web was invented, is the brainchild of the World Wide Web Foundation itself. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor, is at the helm. And, refreshingly, the campaign is trying to avoid the grayness and (in my opinion) hot air of more formal efforts such as the Internet Governance Forum and Netmundial.

“The first step is that we take these topics out of the usual internet governance sphere and into the general public,” Renata Avila, the global campaign lead for Web We Want, told me. “Our main objective [is] to make it popular, engaging and interesting for the common person and not only for internet geeks, to show everyone that they should care.”

Diverse approach

The aim of the wider campaign is to crowdsource a “Magna Carta” for the web, based on principles such as privacy, net neutrality, free expression, affordable access and open and diverse infrastructure.

The festival taking place on the bank of the Thames River this weekend, and on two other weekends in November and May, is only part of this picture – albeit the most high-profile part. Activities will also take place in 20 locations around the world, from Bosnia to Mexico. “We are managing to engage people beyond the usual European-U.S. circles,” Avila said.

The Southbank festival was designed alongside Jude Kelly, the center’s artistic director. Apart from a multitude of talks and seminars covering topics from surveillance to gaming to art — the program was largely crowdsourced — the show also includes a “glass box” where, since earlier this week, people have been developing a new website for the Southbank Centre. Members of the public can come and see this process, which incorporates “the principles of an open, transparent and accessible web,” and make suggestions about the site’s design.

The organizers are also setting up a mesh network on the site, to show people how they can create their own community Wi-Fi network. As Avila explained, education is central to the campaign’s aims:

We are basically building a movement around a common group which is the internet, following a similar approach that the environmental movement followed. We’re encouraging people about the various actions they can take to improve this common resource.

That’s not easy and it cannot happen without education and awareness. Engagement cannot happen […] if we keep discussion at such a high technical level that the average person is not aware they can change things by their consumer choices. It’s a political issue as well.

Beyond reaction

Work began on the Web We Want campaign before Edward Snowden’s mass surveillance revelations in mid-2013, though this topic has of course become a central strand. According to Avila, the program she is helping to direct has taken as inspiration the successful SOPA and PIPA protests of 2012, as well as the suicide of prominent open-web activist Aaron Swartz.

“Scholars and activists realized that reaction, reaction, reaction was not enough,” Avila told me, explaining that the internet activism sphere has “very limited impact to stop” things like – to take a very current example – the Australian government legitimizing mass surveillance this week.

This sphere needs to expand to include larger community and family groups, she said – people who have not traditionally been internet activists, but whose interests are affected by the things that engage activists. The end goal, Avila suggested, was to have ordinary people set the web agenda for companies and politicians, rather than things only working the other way round.

Whether or not this campaign has a major impact in itself, that’s as worthy a goal as you’re likely to find.