Earlier today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator
of the world wide web, made an unprecedented call.
Speaking on the 25th anniversary of his creation, Sir Tim said there needed to be a “Magna Carta”-style
bill of rights to protect web users… Otherwise the online community could just
end up continuing down a road towards more and more government surveillance.
We need to, at this point, it’s 25 years on. We need to think about the next 25 years and
make sure that we’ve established the principles that the web is being based on: principles
of openness, principles of privacy, principles of not being censored, for example.
Sir Tim compared the level of importance of online rights to that of human rights and
stressed that the internet should be a “neutral” medium that could be used without the threat
of surveillance. The inventor’s World Wide Web Foundation has
already begun moves towards such a bill of rights with it’s “web we want” campaign.
The campaign calls for an “open, universal web” that will hold up the vision laid out
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and says that the first step is to draft an
Internet Users Bill of Rights for every country, which can then be proposed to governments.
While all this sounds great however, we can’t help but be cynical and think that governments
are unlikely to take Sir Tim up on his offer. And here’s just a few reasons why… Governments like being able to keep their
eyes on us… When we say “governments” here we’re mostly
referring to the United States and United Kingdom who were revealed last May to have
the ability to spy on the online activities of millions of ordinary citizens via the US’
National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.
And if the US and UK’s response to the Edward Snowden revelations are anything to go by,
they’re unlikely to give up this ability anytime soon.
Rather than apologising for the massive breach in privacy and public trust, the politicians
of both countries deflected blame onto the whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as the
Guardian newspaper that first published his leaks.
Of course, we’re under no illusions that other governments aren’t spying on web users too
– just probably not to the same scale as the US, and its collaborator the UK. And even
if governments did agree to an internet bill of rights, it’s unlikely that this would prevent
their intelligence agencies from spying on web users – they just wouldn’t tell anyone
about it. So pretty much the same as now then. It could put a stop to the Trans Pacific Partnership
(TPP) – or at least to parts of it. The TPP is one of the most ambitious free
trade agreements ever attempted. And if agreed, would see stronger economic and regulatory
ties between at least 12 countries, including the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile,
Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan.
The specifics of the agreement are being deliberately kept secret by the governments involved BUT
back in November Wikileaks managed to obtain the chapter relating to intellectual property.
And it revealed that all web users should be VERY concerned.
If agreed, this chapter would extend the length of time that original works are covered by
copyright for as well as bring in the idea that even temporary copies of original works
are covered by copyright. You say, well, why would I care about that.
Well, everything travelling across the internet is actually a copy. Everything on your computer
when you download stuff, when you watch this programme, is a copy. And they want to bring
in copyright for that, so you’d have to get permission just to download anything across
the internet. Or even have it on your computer. So, they’re trying to broaden the range of
copyright. They’re also trying to make the DRM, the idea of locking down copyright materials
even more stringent so that you can’t actually break the copyright on things like DVDs or
or anything else, bring in more stringent laws against that. They want to bring in very
harsh civil damages so if you’re found to have infringed on copyright they want to bring
in laws that would effectively let you be sued for practically everything. They’re claiming
things like the effective loss of revenue, the lost profits, the damages, they just pile
it on so to try to make it as expensive as possible.
And although the TPP only involves 11 countries, the nature of the world wide web means that
all web users would be affected by any such agreement.
And that large copyright holders would likely rake in huge amounts of profit off of the
back of it. So, if the governments involved in the TPP
were to agree to a bill of rights for web users, they would likely have to do away with
any deal on intellectual property that related to the internet. And this is unlikely to go
down well with the US in particular, which is in the pockets of the lobbyists of the
companies that hold large volumes of copyrighted material. And who are allegedly the ones responsible
for writing this part of the TTP. Corporations, on the whole, don’t like net
neutrality. One of the things that Sir Tim stressed in
his call for a bill of online rights was that the internet should be a “neutral” medium.
Which is unlikely to go down well with the companies who would like to see an end to
net neutrality. Net neutrality, or the open internet, is a
principle that says all legal content on the internet is equal. And in practice this principle
prevents internet service providers from interfering with, or discriminating against any data sent
through their pipes. Which means that providers can’t allow some data to arrive at your computer
quicker, simply because that data is owned by them, for example, or because the owners
of that data are paying for it to be delivered quicker.
But recently there’s been a trend against this, particularly in the US. On 14 January
of this year, in a ruling in favour of internet service provider Verizon, a US court threw
out the country’s open internet rules, and since then, in a game-changing deal, Netflix
has paid provider Comcast an undisclosed sum to speed up the delivery of Netflix content.
Obviously deals like this give certain companies an advantage over their competitors, an advantage
they are unlikely to want to let go just because Sir Tim and millions of us web users want
it so. And as we’ve seen with the copyright industry,
when it comes to the internet, companies usually have more sway over government decisions than
web users like you and me. Of course, these are just a few of the reasons
why governments are unlikely to agree to a bill of rights for web users. And we’d love
to hear your thoughts on this so leave us a comment below and we’ll see you again next