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Toward an Internet “Bill of Rights”

The Web’s Inventor Fights to Keep His Creation True to His Vision, Amid Global Anger Over Trampled Internet Freedoms

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For staunch supporters of Internet freedom, Tuesday delivered evidence of one of the most satisfying self-inflicted injuries yet observed in U.S. politics. Senator Dianne Feinstein took to the Senate chamber to accuse the Central Intelligence Agency of secretly searching the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers. Senator Feinstein, notably, is the chair of that very same oversight committee and has played a pivotal role supplying the legislative air-cover for the computer surveillance practices that so vexed the likes of renowned whistleblower Edward Snowden and others. (Mr. Snowden is enjoying his own uniquely earned schadenfreude. Of course, the CIA denies wrongdoing.)

Against this backdrop (and such fortunate timing), Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee called for an Internet “Bill of Rights” the next day on the occasion of his brainchild’s 25th anniversary — a project his then-bosses at CERN faintly praised as “vague, but exciting.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Berners-Lee said:

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 health care, 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.

The Web We Want project is one vehicle toward this goal. In encouraging citizens to help their countries develop their own Internet “bills of rights,” the project counts affordability, content/publisher-neutrality, infrastructure-openness and privacy among its core principles.

Such efforts are noble and I sincerely hope that they succeed. The promise of an open Internet has been a boon for commerce, freedom and self-expression. It has stoked incredible economic growth, transformed how we access/produce information and held powerful institutions accountable. All of this in spite (or perhaps because) of a spectacular level of technical ignorance among politicians.

However, in the United States, we already have a “Bill of Rights” — one that we even callthe Bill of Rights.” Many countries have the same. Arguably, ours has not fully protected its citizens online or offline, even with the benefit of more than two centuries of examination and use.

Unless citizens are made to care and value these enumerated freedoms, such documents and proclamations are merely words regardless of their source or champion. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (not one to make small, quiet observations) once pointed out that “If you think a bill of rights is what sets us apart, you’re crazy. Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights.” He even went on to say that, strictly on paper, the Soviet Union’s constitution was superior to that of the United States.

Clearly, it’s not about the words themselves or even the designation of something as a “right.” We are just now feeling the effects of the slow erosion of our online freedoms in the name of security, convenience and certainly no small amount of ignorance. Perhaps renewed interest from the Web’s inventor and the ability of enthusiasts to translate that message to the masses will be the catalyst for positive changes in policy, governance and oversight.

Based in Chicago, Phil Gomes is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Digital practice. Learn more about his views on the intersection of PR and Internet/hacker culture by downloading his presentation “Hacking Public Relations.”

Image by Silvio Tanaka.
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