Monday, June 22, 2015

Is the time ripe for a ‘Digital Magna Carta”? Thoughts after the BBC play...

You might remember the BBC play I critiqued recently:

Some thoughts....  


Even those who have railed against the historical effectiveness of the Magna Carta at the time of its signing must concede that it introduced into society a principle which holds true and powerful till today. That ‘no free man shall be seized or imprisoned...except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,’ has made this document an ‘emblem of  the long struggle of people everywhere against the excesses of an arbitrary ruler’ in the 800 years of its existence. The Magna Carta, incidentally, was signed under duress. In 1215, England’s King John had to sign a peace treaty with rebellious barons who had marched against him, a situation made dire by the threat of French invasion from across the sea.

Whatever be its historical truth, its myth precedes it. Its power lies in the idea that today, hundreds of years later, it can inspire a new ‘Magna Carta’ – a document for the digital age, crafting a new social contract between the State and its citizens – and of course, the big internet companies.

To celebrate its anniversary, the BBC broadcast a radio play, set in an imagined future where a crippling cyber attack on the world’s internet network forces the G20 and the I-5 (the most internet companies in the world) to negotiate a digital Magna Carta with a small band of engineers who can save the network. There are three main clauses to this Bill of Rights: an end to the weaponization of the internet; a universal charter to govern it: one network, one law; and guaranteed rights of access to all users.

Twenty-five years since the internet, and there can be no doubt that at least 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion population have seen their lives changed drastically because of connectivity. Agenda setting for shaping this digital society is at a feverish pitch, as processes, conferences, stakeholders and consensus-documents dot the line of the global internet governance system. The Digital Bill of Rights flagged in the BBC play are not simple concepts. Weaponization of space by both state and non-state actors is rampant, with parallel processes running out of the UN, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the ‘London Process’ to develop norms of State Behaviour in Cyberspace. Ultimately, these documents might serve to guide responsible behavior, but a complete – formal -- ban on weaponization of cyberspace seems unlikely. Consider that the closest the world has come to genuinely ridding itself of nuclear weapons is when Superman collected all nukes from around the world and threw them into the Sun in a movie in 1987!

Similarly, the idea that the internet could be governed by one broad law – and clearly an ideal law that would protect freedoms, privacy and citizens from unnecessary surveillance -- is also unlikely in the near future. Today, the internet is governed by the individual laws of nations, with serious questions being asked about which laws apply in a transnational incident, often criminal in nature, when different parties are scattered in different geographies, made further complicated by the fluid nature of data in cyberspace. Given that commerce fuels much of the growth of the internet, a move to harmonize laws across like-minded countries seems a plausible way forward, however, even business cannot account for cultural and economic peculiarities of different regions.

The final demand set forth in the play is that users be guaranteed rights of access. What might sound reasonable given that buzzwords like ‘right to internet’, ‘public utility’ and ‘digital citizenship’ dot the media, however, the ideas might not be as universal as one might imagine. After all, imbibed in the idea of guaranteed access is that free expression is a fundamental right; one not particularly backed by authoritarian countries. Even democratic countries cite law and order problems as a reason to ‘switch off’ access to the internet. In fact, a ‘right’ could be said to be borne out an understanding of what the internet means to society. Does this right to broadband pre-suppose that the internet is key to enjoy the fundamental right to free expression? Or, is it a commercial network, one of many avenues of expression, that should reach citizen-consumers through the market?

These aren’t the only clauses that might make to a ‘Digital Magna Carta’ were it to be drafted today. A project in the UK called ‘My Digital Rights’ also threw open this question to the public. Around 3000 people aged 10-18 submitted around 5000 clauses. The top clause is “The Web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information,” while the 10th clause is “the Web we want will not sell our personal information and preferences for money, and will make it clearer if the company/Website intends to do so.” These might change as the project is still open.

But one thing is clear. The ‘Web’ – with all its fibre optic cables, satellites, wi-fi zones, laptops, mobile phones and other infrastructure has been endowed with a certain positive quality to be protected. The system – this network of networks – is measured by average users more by its potential to be a force for good than any downside. To achieve this, netizens want freedom from surveillance from governments who are tasked from protect them, and freedom from data collection by internet companies whose services they use, often freely. This is because their personal data – often called the ‘new oil’ indicating its value in today’s world – is the new high-value currency in the digital world. The UN Human Rights Council has taken up this subject, and special reports on the Right to Privacy as well on encryption and anonymity have been released to ensure users are afforded the protections they need to operate in this ecosystem.  And along with this, their own responsibilities (or corresponding duties to their rights) is of crucial importance too. After all, hacking, stealing, harassing, bullying, and other anti-social, often criminal activities, also emanate from actors other than governments and business.

Is the time ripe for a ‘Digital Magna Carta’ is as compelling a question as any. In the play, ‘The Great Charter’, a massive cyber attack forced the hand of the world leaders to sign a document at the insistence of a small group, much like King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons. Today, global internet governance is on a different trajectory of sorts: consensus based documents crafted by multiple stakeholders is the order of the day. It is long process, fraught with challenges, nuances, compromises and legalities, and is still missing 4 billion offline voices. But certainly a process made inclusive by access to information, remote-participation, social media engagement and the free flow of ideas.

Perhaps “we” of the web will be able to save it, after all.

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