Thursday, 21 January 2016

Do We Need An Internet Bill Of Rights?

Today I took part in a BBC World Service discussion about the Internet Bill of Rights.  This is something Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been proposing for some time now:

Following the leaks by Edward Snowden, the proposal has gained a vocal group of supporters, and some countries have gone so far as to begin forming legislative frameworks that they believe should be enacted: most notably Brazil's Marco Civil da Internet and Italy's Declaration of Internet Rights.

My own views are very much coloured by the fact that I was raised in a western, liberal democracy.  I think it is a lovely idea, in principle, although some of the specifics I do have an issue with. But even if you were to agree wholeheartedly with the idea I can't see how it will ever happen in practice.

That's not to say that it has to be implemented everywhere.  It could be considered a "gold standard" such as was the case with the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Something we all agree to as an ideal towards which the world should work. The UN Declaration led to the European Convention on Human Rights which became law in the EU's member states through acts such as the British Human Rights Act.

But those countries/regimes which we most hope would change to observe the principles in, say, the UN Declaration are the very ones who have studiously ignored it.  Some have gone further and criticised it as being counter to their laws and customs.  And so it will be with any Internet Bill of Rights. 

Trying to agree who should govern the Internet has proven to be an intractable problem.  Some countries quite understandably have raised concerns that the United States still effectively controls the fundamental bodies that govern the Internet technically.  However, every attempt to agree who should take over the governance is has seen endless conferences come and go with no agreement.  Why? Because everyone has a different idea of how it should be governed.  There are bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union which seem ideal for taking on the task but the tricky part has been finding a framework that all find acceptable.

So what happens instead?  Well, it's grown up organically as a multi-stakeholder approach where everyone uses the same technical standards and follows the same conventions because they work, and the parties want to interoperate.  The clue is in the name: Internet.  The structures that underpin the web are not a single monolithic network but rather a series of interconnected networks run by different countries according  to different laws, but using a unified set of technical standards.

And it is important to remember that the Internet is not some ethereal entity that runs autonomously on fresh air.  It is a set of wires, fibres, routers and servers that have to be paid for and operated by someone.  The Internet touches earth in countries just like the telephone system, and whilst we can make an international call do we expect the same laws to apply to our call regardless of which countries the participants sit?

Bearing in mind that the Internet is governed by the laws of the country in which it operates, and remembering just how long it has taken for the UN's Declaration on Human Rights to become law even in like minded democracies, would we not be better avoiding a whole new Bill of Rights and trying to focus on the existing UN Declaration.  After all the declaration applies to the Internet in the same way as it applies to all other aspects of our lives.  Trying to argue that the Internet is somehow a special case is unlikely to win as an argument, and I suspect we're better off trying to win the battle we have already begun rather than open up a whole new front.

I would suggest we stick with the current multi0stakeholder governance model which, whilst not perfect, works, and keep up the fight to have the UN Declaration of Human Rights applied by all nations to all aspects including the Internet.