Berners-Lee Seeks Digital Bill Of Rights - InformationWeek
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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Berners-Lee Seeks Digital Bill Of Rights

On the 25th anniversary of his proposal for the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee wants Internet users to come to the Web's defense.

On the Web's 25th anniversary, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for the establishment of "a digital bill of rights to advance a free and open Web for everyone." He's set up a website,, to advance that cause.

Berners-Lee's post was published on the official blog of Google, a company that has long championed the Web as a free, open platform for innovation, and has fought meaningful battles against censorship, even as it has weathered criticism for being less than open with its Android mobile operating system and about customers' advertising campaign data.

It was Google in 2009 that proclaimed, "the Web has won," a statement arguably still valid from a platform standpoint. As Berners-Lee puts it, the Web works with any information, on any device, with any software, in any language. Anyone can innovate on the Web without permission. The same cannot be said for other platforms, although open-source software offers similar freedom.

[What will the Web be like more than a decade from now? Read Internet in 2025: 5 Intriguing Predictions.]

Yet there is no real victory in a dynamic world. Settled battles are destined to be fought again. Every open field looks inviting to builders of toll roads. The rise of mobile devices has shifted power to the companies that control software and hardware platforms -- to Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, among others. The Web is a second-class citizen on mobile devices.

The Web's vaunted openness soon will face limits in the form of Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), a framework for presenting media protected by DRM in the browser, without proprietary plugin technologies such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. It is a compromise that might be necessary to keep high-value content from fleeing the Web. But it will transform the Web from "free and open" to "free and open, some limitations apply."

Whatever freedom and openness remains on the Web is being eroded as nations become more adept at censorship. Even an ostensibly open country like the US has struggled to reconcile promised rights such as the First and Fourth Amendments with the way it handles leaks and perceived threats. For example, US Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., recently wrote to the organizers of the South by Southwest Interactive conference asking them to deny NSA whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden -- still a US citizen despite the revocation of his passport -- the opportunity to speak to conference attendees via the Web.

In The New York Times on Wednesday, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, presented an op-ed column calling on policymakers, companies, and individuals to join with Internet activists to fight the rising tide of online censorship around the world.

Berners-Lee is not alone in seeing a threat to the Web and the Web's democratic ideals. But even if Internet users come together to support freedom and openness, enabling something technically doesn't mean there's sufficient political will to accept the open Web and all that it entails. If technology companies were willing to refuse to arm anti-democratic regimes with systems for surveillance and oppression, the Web might flourish with fewer restraints around the globe. But few companies have followed the moral high road away from China, Russia, and similar regimes.

Among the questions Berners-Lee poses is, "How can we build systems of checks and balances to hold the groups that can spy on the Net accountable to the public?" The answer, sadly, is probably not with a mere digital bill of rights.

When the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee is accusing the CIA of undermining government oversight of the agency by secretly searching for and removing documents from computers used by committee members, it appears that even a country with a genuine Bill of Rights can see checks,  balances, and accountability fall short of what its laws suggest it should expect.

The Web doesn't need a digital bill of rights as much as it needs an army to enforce rights that already exist but aren't taken seriously by the powers that be. Either that or it needs technology that trumps government exceptionalism and authoritarian force. That would be real innovation.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
3/13/2014 | 12:24:30 PM
Re: Checks and balances
Sean, While I think there are a few, as you mention, who do have individuals' rights in mind, I'm not sure hackers necessarily "WILL be the ONE that fights for us."  Hackers have their own reasons to do what they do.  I believe consumers need more of an alliance on their side, that operates a bit like ConsumerReports, that can help users know what and who they're up against, and help defend against that/them (i.e. applying encryption tools the way Google is now doing at an enterprise level.) 
User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2014 | 11:41:00 PM
Re: Checks and balances
The governments and the corporations of the world have found and built their place on the internet.  People like Eric Snowden, Julian Assange, and even organizations like Anonymous have the individual's rights in mind. Corporations are all for net neutrality when it impinges on their goals and bottom line. But when it comes to the rights of the end user, they are just as corrupt and power hungry as the governments that seek to quash our abilities to use this powerful tool Berners-Lee has built for us.  Even now, as I write these words on a laptop in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA....I haven't a clue as to whether I am being watched or who is watching me.  The government, the corporation, or the hacker.  Of the three, I fear the hacker the least...because as we fall deeper and deeper into this rabbit's hole of cyber technology....they WILL be the ONE that fights for us.
User Rank: Author
3/12/2014 | 9:20:05 PM
Checks and balances
I commend Berners-Lee for raising the need for a digital bill of rights.  But it's hard to imagine how it could ever be enforced -- especially when the balance of digital power increasingly centers around those, like Google in the private sector, and the NSA's of the world in the public sector, have the resources, servers and software experts to stack things in their favor. While the power of crowds to shame digital abusers remains high, law and order on the Internet still looks a lot like the Wild West.
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