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, webat25.org, 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.
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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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