Why Do We Need a Magna Carta for the Digital Age? – A Position Paper

The World Wide Web Foundation was set up by the Web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to achieve his vision of a Web that truly benefits humanity. Almost twenty-six years ago, in March 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a paper proposing an “information management” system for his colleagues at CERN, a Swiss physics lab. This system, which became the World Wide Web, turned out to be so powerful that it spread everywhere and changed our lives forever.

What was so magical about Sir Tim’s invention? Openness and freedom. Sir Tim and his colleagues wanted everyone, everywhere to be able to add knowledge to the Web, so they gave its building blocks – its source code -away to the world. That meant anyone could view everything on the Web, make their own Web page, link to someone else’s Web page or develop a new app or service on the Web without paying a fee to CERN or asking for permission. 

This openness unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and it is still powering new breakthroughs in science, commerce, culture, and much more besides. Students anywhere can access amazing free resources from universities like Oxford or Harvard. People fighting injustice and corruption can make their voices heard around the world. Indie musicians, designers, and filmmakers can reach huge audiences on practically no budget. A tiny start-up can become a billion-dollar business.

Because the Web and the internet have grown so powerful, many would now like to colonize it for their own ends. Some governments are spying on pretty much everything their citizens do and say online, regardless of whether or not they are suspected of any crime. Other governments want to be able to decide what can or cannot be published online without going through any kind of legal process. Some even harass and arrest bloggers who criticize them. Meanwhile, buying and selling the personal data that we reveal online has become big business, often with scant regard for our rights to privacy. Some companies would even like to create “toll lanes” on the internet, with certain paid services and content getting priority.

As a result, myself, Sir Tim, and many others are concerned about the future of the Web, and the future of the Web is the future of the society that you are going to live in. Will you have an open platform to create and express what you like and communicate and connect with anyone securely? Or will that be available to only some of you, perhaps those who can pay the most, or those whose political beliefs and lifestyle are “approved” by the government of the day?

The biggest threat to the Web today is not actually from companies or governments. Instead, the biggest threat is us simply taking it all for granted. The Web We Want campaign, an initiative by the World Wide Web Foundation, is building a global movement of ordinary people standing up for their rights to free expression, privacy, and creativity online. We need a “Magna Carta for the Web,” which everyone around the world can build together. Instead of allowing governments and companies to determine the rules of the internet, we think it’s time for internet users themselves, the true owners of the World Wide Web, to say what they want. For example, under what circumstances is it acceptable for governments to monitor and store our emails, and should they have to tell us when they do? What should we do about hate speech, bullying, and extremism online? If I share my personal details with the likes of Facebook or Google, can that company resell and reuse my data without my permission? Should governments have an obligation to make sure that everyone has affordable access to the internet just like water and electricity? Should internet service providers be allowed to create “fast lanes” for certain kinds of paid content and services?

Yet, agreeing to an internet users’ charter is not enough. We will need to change laws and change how companies behave and that is not going to happen overnight. It will require the efforts of millions of Web citizens, people like you, to make this happen.

We’ve already seen that change is possible. Last year, for example, the United Nations adopted a resolution saying the same human rights people have offline must be respected online. Brazil has passed a digital bill of rights for its citizens called Marco Civil da Internet. Like the Web, it was built by people, using a groundbreaking, inclusive and participatory process so that the voices of all stakeholders (companies, government, and ordinary web users) could be heard equally.

It’s time to stand up for the rights we want in the digital era. It might seem like a tall order, but our secret weapon is the World Wide Web itself. We can use it to connect all the different people fighting for freedom and privacy online in their respective countries, and in that way, we can build a Magna Carta for the Web in the same way that the Web was built — from the bottom up.