Why Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a Magna Carta for the internet may not work

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 25, 2016

14303-future_internetSir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the world’s first web page more than 25 years ago, wants a Magna Carta for the internet.

He’s been telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that it’s time all Net-users were guaranteed complete freedom – by governments everwhere. It’s not something he’s thought up this week. Last year, Sir Tim passionately told The Guardian that the world need “a global constitution – a bill of rights.” At the time he had warned that “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 healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.”

And he suggested that Net-users everywhere band together and force the authorities to guarantee Net-freedom. Just like the Magna Carta of 1215, agreed between the unpopular King John and a group of barons. The original Magna Carta promised the protection of the church, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and a cap on the payments made to the crown.

There are some problems with Sir Tim’s call for a Magna Carta for the internet:

  • the original didn’t work. Neither side stuck to what they agreed and it all came to war
  • the original was between two parties – the crown and the barons. A 21st century Magna Carta for the internet would need to extract agreement for a global digital compact from at least 193 countries (the number of members of the United Nations).
  • Each country views the internet rather differently. Till the Snowden revelations, the US used to regularly collect huge amounts of internet metadata for what it called security reasons. The UK helped with that too. China is sensitive about a certain kind of internet engagement, as are some other countries.
  • Finally, and I think pretty crucially, even Sir Tim is not willing to countenance complete net freedom for everything. Bullying – of women – he says, is a red line. From bullying to planning a terrorist attack, it is easy to see how the arguments for limiting the internet can be made by countries and security agencies.