Following the pattern of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the so-called Bill of Rights—many industries propose similar sets of principles designed to protect individuals and/or organizations in those industries. For instance, one might read about a patient’s bill of rights. According to Federico Guerrini at ZDNet, a recent proposal is an Internet users’ bill of rights. The Italian document, “meant to serve as the foundation for defining web users’ rights and obligations, was officially made public, under the name of the ‘Declaration of Internet Rights.’”
Such efforts, although laudable in their attempts to address abuses by companies and (more particularly) governments, are misguided on at least two fronts. First, by often making up new rights rather than simply applying established rights (right to life, property and so on), they muddy the philosophical waters and create a hodgepodge ideology that is difficult to justify. The arbitrary nature of these declarations effectively means anyone can arbitrarily reject them. Second and more importantly, bills of rights are generally worth about as much as the paper they’re written on.
According to the Fourth Amendment, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” How dragnet surveillance by the NSA fails to violate that right, I will never understand. Yet government justices and other agents seem to find no conflict, given their decisions and policies. Similar arguments apply to the other amendments, which are trampled regularly in the U.S. Thus, there is no reason to think that an “Internet bill of rights” will fare any better. Perhaps before we muck things up with more such proposals, we should just focus first on getting the basics right: life, property and free association.
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