A Magna Carta for the Web? No Thanks

March 12, 2014

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has used the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the world wide web to {call for a bill of rights to cover its users: http://bbc.in/1hbiUdS}. Actually I think he is calling for rights relating to Internet users generally not just web users but, while nobody reporting on the 25th anniversary seems to be able to distinguish between the Web and the Internet, I imagine that Sir Tim can.

It all sounds very laudable and my first reaction was ‘Yes, a high-profile call focusing on the abuses that Snowden and others have highlighted’. But surely the rights that concern us transcend the medium. What I want to see is greater freedom from intrusive surveillance and fewer restrictions on freedom to access information. These rights should not stop and start on the Web (or the Internet).

To call for special rights for online users suggests that their rights are different and superior to those of others. They are not. To mark out the Internet as fundamentally different from all other forms of communication is dangerous; it risks marking it out as a special place which may well be seen as in need of special rules. The danger, judging from recent history, is that the special rules will be more restrictive and will limit activity which would be deemed perfectly acceptable in other contexts.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 provides as follows:
{i}Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.{/i}

We are of course some way off seeing those rights exercised in practice by the vast majority of the human race. It is hard to see the day when we will see those rights universally acknowledged. But it is worth the fight and fighting just for the rights of online users is a diversion.

Lest I be misunderstood, I should make it clear that I do not decry the many who are fighting for online freedoms. Many of these rights should be seen as part and parcel of the wider freedoms for which we should all strive and of course one can only fight one battle at a time. But I do despair a little when we see a focus on the right to download pirate copies of online games and a blind eye turned to much more injurious tramplings on the rights that are basic and oft overlooked.

It does no harm from time to time to reread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I have had it in a little blue book in my desk since my student days. Remind yourself; it is online {here: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/}.