We we need a MCDR

Why do we need a Magna Carta for the digital age?

A short article by Anne Jellema, the CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, exploring why we need to have a Magna Carta for the digital age.

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 did the Web bring us?

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 film makers can reach huge audiences on practically no budget. A tiny start up can become a billion dollar business.

How is this openness under threat?

Because the Web and the internet have grown so powerful, many would now like to colonise 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 criticise 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?

What is the Web's biggest threat?

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. That is why our Web We Want campaign 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 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.

But change is possible.

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 ground breaking, inclusive and participatory process so that the voices of all stakeholders (companies, government and ordinary web users) could be heard equally.

As we celebrate 800 years since the original Magna Carta defined our basic liberties, 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.

Should access to the web be a human right and what are the complexities of this question?

  • Anne Jellema
  • Anne has over 15 years experience as a development worker and human rights campaigner. From 2006 to 2012 she was the International Director of Policy and Campaigns for ActionAid, and also oversaw the organisation’s global programming on women’s rights, education and food rights. She helped to found the Global Campaign for Education and served as its first coordinator from 2001 to 2005.

    A graduate of the University of Michigan, Anne was a Marshall Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge and a Mellon Century Fellow at the University of Chicago.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.