Recently, the world celebrated the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web (Web) as created by Tim Berners-Lee. The Web represents one of the most important pieces of technology today, as it makes the commercial internet (the one you and I are using right now) possible. As part of this celebration, Berners-Lee went on a number of interviews. In these interviews, Berners-Lee called for a kind of Internet Bill or Rights or Magna Carta to protect the rights of users against various forms of overreach. The idea is that various interests, particularly national and corporate interests, threaten to erode the rights of private users. Berners-Lee feels these rights need explicit protection, the kind normally provided by the highest forms of law.
There are two major questions that come to mind when reading Berners-Lee’s comments. First, is an Internet Bill of Rights a good idea? I personally feel that a well-executed Internet Bill of Rights is a good idea. Given some of the recent revelations regarding user privacy, having some protections in place for ordinary web users would be useful. There is a strong counter-argument that current government mechanisms should be sufficient to protect the rights of web users. In other words, the current US Bill of Rights (especially the First and Fourth Amendments) should sufficiently protect American users and provide them with some recourse against government and corporate overreach. There are three major problems with this argument. First, actual US courts have been inconsistent in applying precedent to technology and internet cases. The issue with whether police can search a cell phone incident to an arrest without a warrant or the continuing legal fight over the NSA’s storage and use of metadata serve as examples of this phenomenon. Second, such constitutional restraints only apply to the government. Corporations require specially enumerated laws for such protections to exist. Third, the rights protected under law vary wildly between countries. Data protected in the European Union or United States under the letter of the law is not protected in many other countries. However, finding a baseline of rights between all countries that use the internet raises a host of other logistical issues.
Second, how would the Internet Bill of Rights operate? This is where I feel that, from a practical standpoint, the idea runs into major problems. There are a number of logistical problems that need to be overcome. First, there is an issue of enforcement mechanisms. Some entity needs to ensure that governments and companies follow the Internet Bill of Rights, and that they can be brought to trial if they violate user rights. While a trans-national entity such as the United Nations might work just for putting the rights on paper, there is little the UN can realistically do to hold violators accountable. Placing control and enforcement of the Bill of Rights under a nation solves the enforcement issue, but raises concerns that enforcement will serve that country’s national interests. Placing the enforcement and interpretation under a non-profit organization like the ICANN (which manages the Domain Name System, or DNS) potentially serves as a middle ground. The non-profit route is far from perfect (ICANN also serves as an example in this respect) and might still lack the enforcement mechanisms to make an Internet Bill of Rights more than words on a digital sheet of paper. These issues don’t even address what rights the various internet-using nations of the world could all agree to support.
Despite these issues, I would love to see this idea pursued further. It would just take time, energy, and a dash of creativity.
Update (5:28): This is unrelated to the above material, but it looks like Popcorn Time took down their service (http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/03/netflix-like-torrenting-app-popcorn-time-disappears/). They left a brief note on their webpage protesting the nature of current copyright law.