At 25, does the Web need a bill of rights?


What are the rights, if any, that we should have on the Web? (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A quarter-century ago, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his colleagues at CERN that outlined his vision for what would become the World Wide Web. Now, he wants to make sure that it's growing up the right way.

It's hard to overstate the impact that the Web has had on everyday life around the world. But as it turns 25, the indispensable tool is going through a quarter-life crisis of sorts.

As Berners-Lee told the Guardian, questions about the Web's role in issues such as free speech and privacy  have "crept up on us." "Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it," he told the British newspaper. "So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years."

He's taken his call for an online Magna Carta to the people, working with the "Web We Want" campaign to encourage people around the world to draft and submit copies of an online bill of rights for each country.

What would that look like? Here's a snippet from the Web We Want "About" page on the basic principles they support.

The Web We Want Campaign will build support for national and regional campaigns to create a world where everyone, everywhere is online and able to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity over the open Web. We’ve come together in support of the following principles:

  • Affordable access to a universally available communications platform

  • The protection of personal user information and the right to communicate in private

  • Freedom of expression online and offline 

  • Diverse, decentralized and open infrastructure

  • Neutral networks that don’t discriminate against content or users

Berners-Lee is hardly the first person to advocate for some sort of document outlining the rights of Web users, but past efforts haven't found much traction. For example, privacy advocates in Europe have long discussed a "right to be forgotten" online. President Obama laid out a consumer "privacy bill of rights" that aimed to give users more control over data collected online and that still hasn't been enacted two years after being proposed. There's also been some discussion from technology leaders, such as Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, to explore the idea of Internet connectivity as a human right, but mostly as a framework to explain private efforts to improve connectivity around the world.

It's not clear, exactly, how Berners-Lee wants to have users work to implement whatever bills of rights users come up with, but he told the Guardian that a "shared document of principle could provide an international standard for the values of the open web."

What would you put in your digital bill of rights? Let us know in the comments.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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