We Need a Magna Carta for the Internet

05/06/2014 02:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014
  • Tim Berners-Lee Inventor of the World Wide Web; founder World Wide Web Foundation
Britannia.com

These comments are adapted from a talk to the Net Mundial conference in Brazil last week.

"Twenty-five years ago, when the Internet had been running for 20 years, there was internet mail and net news and remote login, but there was no web. No web sites, web pages, links. So I invented the World Wide Web. As the project grew, I needed collaborators. To achieve that, I went to the Internet technical community.

Specifically, I founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a multistakeholder organization that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web. W3C works on different aspects of Internet technology with numerous organizations, including the Internet Engineering Task Force, ECMA/TC39, IANA, and ICANN.

Hopefully you all agree that we have done a reasonable job. The Web, and its underlying Internet infrastructure, have been an enormous engine of growth and understanding for society. It has been the collaboration between these multi-stakeholder organizations which has made this possible.

Our technical community achieved this contribution with little oversight from governments. In fact, our "OpenStand" vision is that the right way to build a technical infrastructure for society is through multi-stakeholder technical groups where decisions are made in the public interest and based on technical merit. Discussion is open. Documents are available for free on the web. In W3C specifically, companies commit that as the standard emerges, they will not charge royalties to those who implement it.

The web needs to remain a system which exists without regard to national borders. Today most of the work is already done in the non-national Internet technical community. I was also pleased to hear that ICANN is beginning a dialogue to create a multi-stakeholder review process to replace that of the U.S. government. That is appropriate because ICANN services the global public interest.

For me, that means that when a decision is taken about a possible new top-level domain, ICANN's job is to work out, in a transparent and accountable manner, whether it is really in the best interest of the world as a whole, not just of those launching the new domain.

It also means that ICANN's use of the funds should be spent in a beneficent way; such as supporting standardization, security hardening, and internationalization of the technology; accessibility, and closing the digital divide.

The Internet has thrived by the collective empowerment of capable, public-spirited people: initially, from the technical community and academia, and more recently, also the private sector in general, civil society and governments. We need a system of internet governance that allows each community to bring its particular strengths to the common table, but allows none of them to elevate its own interests above the public good.

Five years ago I founded an organization called the World Wide Web Foundation to ensure the web is the web we want, and that everyone can connect and use it freely.

The web has become an essential public utility. Much of our traditional thinking about human rights of course applies directly to everything on the Internet. New things also become important:

  • Net neutrality means keeping the net free from discrimination, be it commercial or political. The innovative explosion which has happened across the web over the last 25 years has happened only because the net has been neutral. The social ground-breaking sense of possibility that we can understand each other and live in peace relies on an open net.

  • Freedom of expression is a crucial right, but it has to be coupled with a complementary right to privacy. Mass surveillance presents perhaps the most immediate and perhaps the most insidious threat to human rights online.

It is great to be back in Brazil. Not just because Brazil is a wonderful country, and one which has always had a strong vibrant sense of opportunity with the Net. But especially today as we are celebrating the Brazilian senate passing the Marco Civil da Internet -- a very good example of how governments can play a positive role in advancing web rights and keeping the web open. [This so-called "Constitution for the Internet" guarantees privacy, net neutrality and free speech. -- editor.]

Of course Europeans are also celebrating the European Parliament passing legislation protecting the rights of users of the net, including a form of Net Neutrality.

These two data points mean we are making progress.

We have a huge way to go.

The principles of human rights on the net are new and not universally accepted. The web becomes ever more exciting with advancing technology, but 60 percent of the population still can't use the web at all. As the web is giving people greater and greater power individually and collectively, so many forces are abusing or threaten to abuse the net and its citizens.

The web we will have in 25 years time is by no means clear, but is completely up to us to decide what we want to make that web, make that world. That is why I am asking web users around the world to define a global Magna Carta for the Internet. That's why I am asking countries everywhere to follow Brazil's example and develop positive laws that protect and expand the rights of users to an open, free and universal web.