Tim Berners-Lee recently called on the internet to adopt a bill of rights for the world wide web. It sounds wonderful in theory, but here is why it will never work, and why that's okay.
As long as the Internet has existed, conversations about its use and implications have been present. In the post-Snowden era, Internet privacy issues and the concept of net neutrality have come to the front of the stage; and the concept of a "free" and "open" Internet is more fragmented than ever.
On Tuesday, March 11, web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee called Internet users to rally around the idea of an "open web for everyone" in a guest post on Google's blog.
"On the 25th birthday of the web, I ask you to join in—to help us imagine and build the future standards for the web, and to press for every country to develop a digital bill of rights to advance a free and open web for everyone," Berners-Lee wrote in the post.
The concept of an Internet bill of rights is nothing new. In 2012 the Human Rights Council affirmed that specific human rights must be protected on the Internet. Also in 2012, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden proposed a "digital bill of rights" at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York. The same year, Reddit began drafting its own set of rights for the Internet.
While Berners-Lee standing behind an Internet bill of rights as the creator of the web has renewed the conversation on the future of the web, it will not make much of a difference in how the concept is realized. Not much has come to pass, legally, from past efforts to regulate the web, and not much will come from this call to arms either.
Let's talk about why.
The American dream
One of the main issues with the proposal of a bill of rights for the Internet is that most people aren't proposing an Internet bill of rights, they are proposing an American Bill of Rights for the Internet. Alex Howard, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University (and a TechRepublic columnist), said this is due, in part, to the history of the Internet.
"The way that technologies are built is a political expression. I don't think it's an accident that the Internet was created in a Western society," Howard said.
The Internet was built in the U.S. and as we export these technologies, we are also exporting our beliefs. As a journalist, I am proud to live in a country that values and supports a freedom of speech. However, I have to question the idea that our role as Americans is to tell other people how to live. There have been universal declarations of human rights, but in practice rights are enacted by the governing body of an individual country. Howard's position is that laws that govern individual citizens in a country should govern them online as well.
"My position is simply that, we have a perfectly good [Bill of Rights], let's just enforce it online," Howard said.
The U.S. has had the Privacy Act in place since 1974, but regulations on disclosure of information is not a reality for many countries. It's not necessarily a bad thing to believe that some of these rights should exist in other countries, but we have to ask if the citizens of these countries want these rights in the same ways we do.
It is entirely possible that most Internet users believe in an open and free Internet, but that doesn't change the fact that their country of residence defines their rights online. Creating a bill of rights for the use of a service won't mean anything if most of the countries it is targeting are already abusing those proposed rights.
An Internet bill of rights will probably never exist, but that doesn't matter. The idea and conversation behind an Internet bill of rights is far more important than the bill itself, and that should be our focal point.
The idea is more important
"Will we allow others to package and restrict our online experience, or will we protect the magic of the open web and the power it gives us to say, discover, and create anything? How can we build systems of checks and balances to hold the groups that can spy on the net accountable to the public? "
These are some of the questions posed by Berners-Lee in his blog post. He later goes on to ask readers to sign a petition for an Internet bill of rights, which is secondary to the conversation he has already started. It's easy to be cynical about online advocacy, but let's disregard the petition and focus on the language he is using.
"He is drawing our attention to the fact that some of the things we take for granted are actually under threat," said Matthew Shears, global Internet policy and human rights director at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Countries like the U.S. have come to expect a right to privacy and freedom of speech, but in doing so we have also come to take these rights for granted. Our 24 hour breaking news cycles have given us short attention spans for what really matters, and we need to be reminded of the fact that our rights have been violated.
The Internet has given countries around the world a way to express themselves freely. I believe Berners-Lee's blog post serves two purposes—it keeps the dialogue open about what freedom is online and it helps to set a high expectation for countries who don't already have these rights in place.
"The discussion about principles and rights will elevate the discussion about the future of the Internet and its governance," Shears said.
The blog post was nicely timed to celebrate the 25th year of the Internet, but Shears mentioned that it also dovetails as a precursor for the Net Mundial conference happening in São Paulo, Brazil in late April. Berners-Lee may have alluded to this when he wrote, "Key decisions on the governance and future of the Internet are looming, and it’s vital for all of us to speak up for the web’s future."
The conference, which is billed as The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, will "focus on crafting Internet governance principles and proposing a roadmap for the further evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem," according to its website.
Net Mundial came about after a UN debate where Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff urged the General Assembly to protect Internet users from privacy violations that she called, "serious violations of human rights." Berners-Lee wants to make sure that these ideas are at the forefront of the conversations at the conference, and that they come back to the forefront of activists' conversations.
If recent events like the Arab Spring are any indication, the global community is better equipped to act on an idea than they have ever been. I am not trying to equate challenging Internet use policies with challenging an oppressive government; I am merely trying to point out that an idea can fundamentally change a culture.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "One idea lights a thousand candles."
Again, while it is unlikely that there will ever be a global consensus on an Internet bill of rights, the important thing is the conversation around these issues. It creates expectations of freedom and privacy among Internet citizens, and it pressures governments and corporations to act in response to those expectations.