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We need a digital Magna Carta - Sir Tim Berners-Lee's other big idea for everyone

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 11, 2014
The man who gave us the World Wide Web and kickstarted the digital revolution now wants us to decide what sort of web we want for the next 25 years.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee

A bill of rights for the World Wide Web to protect freedom of speech.

In this post-NSA scandal world where policians across the globe seem hellbent on attempting to rein in the internet, it’s hardly the first time such an idea has been proposed.

But when the call comes today on the official 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web - it’s actually the anniversary of when Berners-Lee submitted his proposal to his bosses at the CERN labs - and it comes from its creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, then perhaps it deserves a little bit more attention than usual.

Magna Carta - did she die in vain? (Bad UK joke)

Berners-Lee argues that what we need now is a charter like the Magna Carta - signed in 1215 as a critical step on the path towards constitutional law in England, according to the web - to help guarantee fundamental principles online.

He cites not only the Edward Snowden fuss - Berners-Lee reckons Snowden did us all a favor by the way - but the actions of governments worldwide to censor and snoop and generally undermine democracy:

"It's time for us to make a big communal decision. In front of us are two roads - which way are we going to go?

"Are we going to continue on the road and just allow the governments to do more and more and more control - more and more surveillance?

"Or are we going to set up a bunch of values? Are we going to set up something like a Magna Carta for the world wide web and say, actually, now it's so important, so much part of our lives, that it becomes on a level with human rights?"

He adds:

“Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. 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.”

The web we want

Backing up his call, Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web foundation has launched the web we want campaign to coincide with the 25th anniversary and aims to protect human rights online.

The big idea

Speaking recently, Anne Jellema, the chief executive of the Foundation, said:

“Privacy is fundamental to freedom of expression and the bulk of data stored by companies without our knowledge is concerning. Privacy is fundamental to freedom of expression and it has rightly got a lot of attention.

“The last year has been a drum roll of revelations - governments, not just the USA but the UK, German, Indian, are more and more collecting bulk data and storing data.

“The storing of data is something that I am concerned about, so is Tim Berners-Lee. If you suspect someone is monitoring, it will change the way we use the web, which could be damaging.”

Meanwhile as we all struggle to imagine a world where we can't find pictures of kittens being nauseously cute at the click of a mouse, Berners-Lee is also none-too-happy with those who moan that there’s too much nonsense on the Web:

"I don't have a lot of sympathy with people who say: 'There's so much rubbish on the web.' Well, if there's so much rubbish, if it's rubbish, don't read it. Go read something else."


A sound and utterly sensible idea of course.

How it would work in practice - well, put it this way, on a practical level I’m glad someone else is having to think about that.

That said, it’s important that we do all think about this tipping point we’ve reached.

While the NSA scandal has become the headline grabbing bete noir when it comes to privacy debates, there are far more insidious ways to undermine online freedom going on under our noses all the time. We all need to play our part in deciding what’s worth defending.

As Berners-Lee tweeted from the London Olympics opening ceremony last year: this is for everyone.

(If you were watching from the US, you might have missed that bit…)


Meanwhile happy birthday WWW - where would we get our trivia from without you?  Like the fact that you were going to be called the Information Mesh and Mine of Information at various points in your birth.

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