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Tim Berners-Lee wants Internet Magna Carta to guarantee netizens' privacy

At the London Web We Want festival on the future of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee said we need a Magna Carta for the Internet to guarantee netizens' privacy and freedom from governments and corporations.

Tim Berners-Lee
Credit: Silvio Tanaka

Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago, recently warned that governments and corporations want control of the web and are threatening the freedom of the Internet. On Saturday, at the London Web We Want festival on the future of the Internet, Berners-Lee called for a bill of rights that would guarantee netizens’ privacy and keep the web independent. He again called for a global "Magna Carta" for the Internet.

He gave a TED Talk about "A Magna Carta for the web" back in March, but yesterday Berners-Lee warned that corporations, as much as governments, want to control and abuse the open Internet. The idea to crowdsource a “Magna Carta” for the web is “based on principles such as privacy, net neutrality, free expression, affordable access and open and diverse infrastructure.”

Berners-Lee told the London Evening Standard that his plan had been to use the 25th anniversary of the web to start “a discussion on internet rights, but ‘that was before Snowden’.” The surveillance revelations made creating a Magna Carta for the web, and thereby ensuring the freedom of all netizens, all the more urgent. He added, “You shouldn’t trust your government but you shouldn’t trust your companies either. We have to have checks and balances for them all.”

When asked about the “biggest single threat to the free internet today,” Berners-Lee replied:

“I used to say it was either government controlling the internet, in countries like China, or big companies controlling the internet, in countries like America,” he says, carefully. “It actually turns out to be more subtle than that. In America, the big companies fund congressmen and election campaigns. There’s a popular bumper sticker in Washington, ‘Invest in America, buy a Congressman’. So you could say big companies control the government anyway. The biggest threat is for any large powerful force to take over the internet.”

The Guardian reported that during the Web We Want festival, Berners-Lee said, “I want a web where I’m not spied on, where there’s no censorship.” He warned that corporations and the governments want control of the Internet.

If a company can control your access to the internet, if they can control which websites they go to, then they have tremendous control over your life. If a government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages, then they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power. Suddenly the power to abuse the open internet has become so tempting both for government and big companies.

But if we crowdsource and complete a Magna Carta for the web that ensures fundamental rights, how would we enforce it? Would it need to be voted upon by each country and made into law? If so, wouldn’t big companies go ahead and “buy a Congressman” so they could take out Magna Carta portions harmful to their business models of using us as the products?

If we were able to push for better privacy rights, wouldn’t the government cry foul and claim that it could hurt children in the end? For example, FBI Director James Comey said in the post-Snowden world where people are more concerned about surveillance, the “pendulum swung too far.”

I agree with Berners-Lee that with the web at 25, it’s way past time for an Internet bill of rights to ensure netizens’ privacy and to keep the web open. Yet I also expect governments and corporations to use examples of how the web can be “bad” to fight it. But in order for the Internet to be a “neutral medium,” Berners-Lee said it must “reflect all of humanity, including ‘some ghastly stuff’.”

He was not implying that everything should be legal, and added, "Now some things are of course just illegal, child pornography, fraud, telling someone how to rob a bank, that's illegal before the web and it's illegal after the web."

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