A Bill of Rights for the web: Berners-Lee’s impossible dream

The inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has called for a Bill of Rights to protect its users. It’s a move that deserves attention and praise.

Berners-Lee marked the 25th anniversary of his invention by this week calling for a Magna Carta for the web to establish a series of rights that protect against online surveillance.

It would be easy to see his call as part of a pattern of post-Snowden reaction were it not for the fact that it has always been TBL’s contention that the web is “for everyone” and a powerful force for good.

In interview with the Guardian, TBL said that without protecting the neutrality and openness of the web, “we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.”

It’s a valid point.

There is a tendency to think of democracy as being the ability of people to exercise their right to vote in a free and fair way – but this is absolutely contingent on access to free and open information. Even in its freest and fairest election, Zimbabwe (where I lived for a while, pre-web) could not practice democracy because the vast bulk of media was state-controlled.

The case of Zimbabwe also helps illustrate one of the main issues that can be taken with Sir Tim’s vision. Put simply, how many countries beyond established democracies would pay attention to an online Bill of Rights?

Even post-Snowden we take open government, democracy, healthcare, and aspirations to equality for granted in the UK, the US, and much of Europe. But there are large swathes of the world where these things are a distant dream. Since the governments of many poor countries struggle to achieve even the most basic standards of living for their citizens, it is unlikely that they will give the WWW Magna Carta much attention.

It’s also extremely hard to imagine totalitarian regimes of any stripe respecting this constitution when they have so dramatically disregarded other human rights. If China still tightly controls what its citizens can and can’t see, how likely is it to sign up? Iran likewise. In the run ups to revolutions throughout the Arab Spring, access to the web was blocked. Is that likely to change because of a Bill of Rights? In fact, a report by Renesys last year identified 61 countries likely to shut down all web access when provoked.

And what good is a Bill of Rights across Africa and in large parts of South East Asia where fewer than 20% of people have access of any kind to the web?

The glory, and challenge, of Tim Berner Lee’s invention is that the web should be something that is truly world wide. But as such, it will be used, abused, respected and reviled in different ways by different peoples. Sadly, that makes a global Bill of Rights seem like an impossible dream.