At Runnymede on the banks of the river Thames on June 15, 1215, King John of England was forced by a group of his subjects to sign Magna Carta, a charter designed to limit his powers by law, and protect his subjects’ rights.
Magna Carta is widely recognised as the first faltering step towards constitutional law, and ultimately modern western democracy, the first real attempt to subject the unrestrained power of an unelected and unrepresentative ruler to a set of agreed-upon rules since classical times.
774 years later, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir) invented the World Wide Web, the system of interlinking documents on the internet using clickable hyperlinks, and exactly 25 years after that, in response to Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations about how governments and secretive spying organizations have been able to abuse the power of the internet to spy on just about everybody, without any meaningful form of oversight or consent from the people they are claiming to protect, Berners-Lee has called for an online ‘Magna Carta’ – an internet bill of rights.
‘Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.’
Berners-Lee’s plan has been adopted by the What We Want initiative, and we urge all our readers to head over there and your voice to the campaign to draft an Internet Users’ Bill of Rights in every country.
A long-time critic of the methods used by the NSA and GHCQ, Berners-Lee is deeply concerned that the principles of privacy, free speech and responsible anonymity have been trampled upon, and that there is a need for public debate over where acceptable lines should be drawn,
‘These issues have crept up on us… Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years.’
He also calls on those whose job it is to protect citizens to become savvier with technology, so they can understand the extent to which their laws can be abused, and the social and economic structures which they support,
‘But we need our lawyers and our politicians to understand programming, to understand what can be done with a computer. We also need to revisit a lot of legal structure, copyright law – the laws that put people in jail which have been largely set up to protect the movie producers … None of this has been set up to preserve the day to day discourse between individuals and the day to day democracy that we need to run the country.’
Concerned about balkanisation of the internet as countries break off and create boundaries to protect themselves from NSA-style abuses, Berners-Lee, who stared in the 2013 Olympic Opening Ceremony typing out the words ‘this is for everyone’ on a computer in the centre of the arena, urges people to fight for a free, equal web that is not fractured,
‘The key thing is getting people to fight for the web and to see the harm that a fractured web would bring. Like any human system, the web needs policing and of course we need national laws, but we must not turn the network into a series of national silos.’
An important part of this, in Bernard-Lee’s view, is removing the United States as sole key holder to the database which oversees nearly all the world’s domain names, ICANN, and which many argue should be held as a non-partisan global resource,
‘The removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce is long overdue. The US can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national. There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length.’
Berners-Lee wrote the first draft for the proposal that would become the World Wide Web on 3 March 1989, and is now a vocal and active campaigner for keeping it free.