Do we need an internet Bill of Rights?

Andrea Stroppa
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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has been a strong advocate of internet users’ rights. In a March 2014 interview for The Guardian, he highlighted the need for a “Magna Carta” of internet rights to formally support the freedom and privacy of digital citizens worldwide. Today, this remains a pivotal step to prevent or limit mass surveillance programmes by national governments, threats to net neutrality and a few tech giants’ inclination to control the technology market.

Sharing the same concerns of Berners-Lee, local scholars, journalists, politicians and citizens have joined forces to draft such Magna Cartas. In April 2014, for example, the Brazilian government approved a Civil Rights Framework for the Internet. On 28 July, the Italian Parliament introduced a similar Internet Bill of Rights – a 14-provision document that specifically addresses internet access rights, education and best practices, protection of personal data, privacy and anonymity, net neutrality principle, and the so-called “right to be forgotten”.

Initially drafted more than a year ago by a pool of experts, this document has been subject to an online public consultation and to parliamentary hearings with representatives of the government, technology and telecom companies, and national associations. In its final draft, the Internet Bill of Rights aims particularly at drawing the attention of EU authorities and thus being recognized at the European level.

In its introduction, the document states: “This Declaration of Internet Rights is founded on the full recognition of the liberty, equality, dignity and unique diversity of each individual. Preserving these rights is crucial to ensuring the democratic functioning of institutions and avoiding the predominance of public and private powers that may lead to a society of surveillance, control and discrimination. As an increasingly important space for self-expression of groups and individuals, the Internet is a vital tool for promoting individual and collective participation in democratic processes as well as substantive equality. The principles underpinning this Declaration also recognize the Internet as an economic space that enables innovation, fair competition and growth in a democratic context. A Declaration of Internet Rights is a crucial constitutional foundation for a broader affirmation of principles and rights at both international and supranational levels”.

In its 26-year lifespan, the web has seen dramatic changes: today about 3 billion people have access (although with substantial differences in speed, filtering and so on). At the same time, however, a handful of well-established tech giants control a large share of most world markets, and national governments often diverge in regards to key issues such as investments, regulation, user freedom and privacy. Therefore, there is a growing a need for specific agreements between states, tech and telecom companies, along with an urgent push to affirm and protect the rights of all digital citizens. And while Italy’s Declaration of Internet Rights is an important step in the right direction, this complex situation requires a more structured and global approach.

For instance, is it reasonable to expect such countries as China or Russia to join or approve a similar Iinternet Bill of Rights? And even focusing just on the wider EU landscape, how could countries reach a shared position on controversial issues such as net neutrality, anonymity, security and privacy?

Many scholars agree that a possible solution is strengthening NATO involvement on internet-related matters and push direct agreements between states and companies. In this context, the Italian document will certainly help in advancing an open dialogue among the many stakeholders involved – a hopeful initiative that puts under a spotlight a series of urgent issues. It seems unlikely, however, that it could have some actual effect on the current European scene, already fragmented and far from united on many important issues.

Have you read?
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Author: Andrea Stroppa is an internet security researcher and blogger for Huffington Post Italia.

Image: A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown Shanghai November 28, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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