The week of August 9, 2015

It’s time to build the private Web

By Nico Sell

The establishment of the U.S. Postal Service was one of the most visionary civil liberties ideas of its time. It was deeply rooted in George Washington’s belief that a strong state and society can only exist if every citizen has access to uncensored information and can freely communicate, away from the government’s prying eyes.

The Postal Act of 1792 led to the founding of the modern post office and established free speech and a right to private communications, going as far as imposing the death penalty for robbing mail service personnel. The newly established post office was envisioned to be the antipode of the crown post operated by the British government, which frequently opened and censored correspondence.

Today, society needs to breathe new life into Washington’s idea of censorship-free communications by providing these basic rights to all 3 billion people already connected to the Web, and to those who will be coming online in the next decade. We need to collectively balance our global Web to ensure the Internet remains a platform for free speech and uncensored information, where privacy and real human connection enable strong social discourse and economic prosperity.

I call that space the Private Web.

Away from prying eyes

The public Web has brought us incredible innovations that have improved lives and celebrated human creativity. Technology and the hopes it fuels have empowered millions of people across the globe to demand social and political change from some of the most oppressive governments. Yet the same technology is being used to suppress and surveil more than half of the world’s population: those still living under undemocratic regimes and lacking basic rights.

As we all move online, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, just as with any complex and ever-evolving system, the Internet requires a long-overdue fine-tuning.

Technology and the hopes it fuels have empowered millions of people across the globe to demand social and political change from some of the most oppressive governments.

We, as Web users, are generating millions of pieces of information about the most personal aspects of our lives on a daily basis, creating dangerous treasure troves of detailed and calibrated information. Once that information is in the open, we lose ownership of it, to the point that we do not even know who is collecting it.

Businesses increasingly depend on technology, becoming more and more vulnerable to critical data security breaches. Global financial, transport and security systems are being compromised almost weekly—either through targeted attacks or as a result of poor and outdated safeguards.

To expand the benefits of the Internet, we need to continue building the private Web—through applications, technology, policies, and norms—to power innovation, develop ideas, protect our assets, and strengthen human rights for all. Although achieving privacy and universal access to free, uncensored information will always be a moving target as technology evolves, our ability to intentionally choose a right mode of communication, private or public, is a critical step toward bringing George Washington’s vision closer.

Encryption backdoors are a risk

Today, it is essential to set the ground rules that will govern our networks and infrastructure systems in the future. Strong encryption is a key component of the private Web. Having trusted encryption without a backdoor—for either governments or criminals—will enable us to keep out not only the prying eyes of totalitarian regimes but also cybercriminals.

A recent debate around technology backdoors has raised a critical point. Is it possible to weaken encryption in a way that would only allow access to the “good” government and never to criminals or authoritarian regimes? The answer from many prominent technologists has been a loud, resounding “no.”

Speech is only free when we have direct control of our communications.

Considering that most American Internet companies are operating as global entities that must comply with local laws, we should never adopt a policy that we would not want another government to adopt and exploit. If the U.S. government passes a law that requires a backdoor to operate in America, then what would stop the Chinese and Russian governments from doing the same, requiring U.S. companies to give backdoor access to them as well?

The encrypted future

Many questions remain regarding exactly how to achieve that vision in the hyperconnected digital world.

  • How will the private and public Web coexist?
  • What should the standards of data collection be?
  • How can companies that profit today from leveraging our personal and business information innovate around new business models?
  • How do we establish trust with companies we let host our most sensitive and valuable information?
  • How do we verify public promises that companies and governments make about their data retention and usage practices?
  • Who has the duty of care to our children’s data or our health and financial information?
  • How do we promote encryption by default?

There are many more questions we all need to consider if, as a society, we value the progress we’ve made and the rights we continue to fight so hard for, both offline and online.

The U.S. Post Office served as a catalyst for building strong political and social discourse. For the first time, citizens were able to engage in political conversations without fear of being persecuted. Speech is only free when we have direct control of our communications—whether public or private—without the need to self-censor or fear that a piece of communication can be used out of context many years after it has been sent.

It is time to invest our energy, creativity, and resources into building the Web’s private hemisphere to carry on the tradition of private communications, uncensored information, and ownership of our assets.


Nico Sell is co-founder and co-chairman of Wickr Inc., which currently serves millions of private, encrypted Wickr messages each day for users in more than 190 countries. This piece is part of a series provided by the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, class of 2015.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai