Is An Internet "Magna Carta" Even Possible?

The other day, Sir Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian that he’d like to discuss a new “Magna Carta” for the internet. “Magna Carta” is a headline gloss; what the inventor of the world wide web really wants, he says, is a bill of rights—some new document that addresses “principles of privacy, free speech and responsible anonymity":

"These issues have crept up on us," Berners-Lee said. "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."

What Berners-Lee is looking to do is admirable, in the abstract: He wants to preserve the “open, neutral” nature of the internet. And look, there’s a cleanly-designed website already available where you can sign up to help him do this, should that be your sort of thing.

Nonetheless, it's a quest probably destined to fail. Very real threats to the openness and neutrality of the internet are coming from several fronts: NSA surveillance and interference, the loss of net neutrality rules, the consolidation of internet providers. But it's difficult to imagine a way of enacting and passing a global internet bill of rights that would be enforceable, respected by either the world's governments or by the internet itself.

For starters, who would be in charge of passing such a thing, and how? There is no global internet version of the process described in this Schoolhouse Rock. Nor does the internet have a King John to enact a Magna Carta, if we’re gonna stick with that metaphor. Nor, if it were passed, are there any police to enforce it. Just go and ask some international law experts about how well things go when an agreement in principle contains no legitimate mechanism of enforcement.

Even if there were some way to magically make a binding document, there would remain the endless argument about the text and its precise meaning. Which principles of privacy and anonymity would it protect? As we saw in the whole Violentacrez debate, there is a significant constituency on the internet of people who are against "doxxing" under any circumstances. Still others believe that anything vaguely racy a young woman posts on the internet is fair game for spreading far and wide on the internet the internet because “she should have known better.” And yet others think any reasonable code of cyber civil rights would contain protections against such harassment. It's hard to imagine these people coming to terms on the parameters of privacy in any representative way.

The whole notion of enforcing principles about privacy and anonymity marks Berners-Lee's Magna Carta as something of a conservative concept, by internet-culture standards. There's significant sentiment that any kind of governance, beyond protecting "openness," is inherently inappropriate.

For those of you not around the internet back in 1998, John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote something called A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It’s about having an open, neutral internet too. And it reads, in part:

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

Of course this document is old. But reading this now you can hear in it echoes of the philosophies of Anonymous, Wikileaks, even Redditors—all of whom would have to weigh in on this “bill of rights” for it to have even the remotest legitimacy among the users of the internet.

The manifesto and the strain of internet culture that's developed in its shadow show a fundamental admiration for the power of chaos. And for the power of so-called “acts of nature,” which bills of rights are not. Also there’s this bit, which seems to resist the very idea of being controlled by anything other than “liberty” itself:

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

So: no legal concepts. Like, for example, bills of rights. Got it. Not for the defenders of the “Independence of Cyberspace,” such things. And not to be too much of a cynic but: I suspect that’s more than just, you know, one guy’s opinion.

[Photo Credit: AP.]