In light of the stranglehold of a few major telecommunication companies on Internet access (particularly in the U.S.) along with broad government spying, it’s tempting to demand creation of a legal structure that protects responsible web users from abuse by others—particularly mega companies and rogue government agencies. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has called for “a global constitution—a bill of rights” that, according to The Guardian, “calls on people to generate a digital bill of rights in each country—a statement of principles he hopes will be supported by public institutions, government officials and corporations.” But such a proposal, although noble in some aspects, requires a more basic foundation—one that’s unfortunately missing from most (particularly western) nations.
Bills of Rights Don’t Work
The Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) has served as a model in a number of contexts for protecting citizens from this or that threat, but its history shows that it is far from a reliable solution.
One of the initial arguments against the Bill of Rights was that it could be construed as outlining all of the freedoms of an individual—that is, if it isn’t mentioned in the list, then it’s not a right. Of course this is nonsense, as listing all of an individual’s rights and the associated conditions would be a monumental undertaking, but in the twisted legal system, it’s an argument that could stand. Regardless of the interpretation of the scope of the Bill of Rights, however, the NSA spying scandal (among numerous other examples) has shown that the government views itself as unconstrained by any law. In particular, the Fourth Amendment reads,
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.
Naturally, “creative” interpretation of the language (usually through ignorance of the overall context of the law) could provide numerous ways to justify universal NSA spying: it’s “reasonable” for promoting national security, for instance. This sort of disdain for the meaningfulness of language is in part to blame for the myriad laws in all their gory legal details.
Furthermore, the very nations with legal traditions similar to that of the U.S. (meaning western nations) are among the biggest culprits in electronic surveillance according to Reporters Without Borders. “Shady agencies at the service of democratically-elected governments are among the worst online spies in the world,” reports ZDNet regarding the position of this group. Furthermore, the group believes “agencies such as the US National Security Agency…embrace the worst methods of snooping in the name of governments that purportedly hold freedom of speech as a national priority.”
Governments, like any entity, seek to preserve their own interests, which unfortunately often fail to intersect with the interests of individuals. Western nations today use a combination of carrots and sticks to prevent any form of real change: proponents of individual liberty, for instance, are cowed by threats, and the flow of government goodies (both to mega companies and individuals) keep everyone reliant on the system as it stands. In such a scenario, which is common in one form or another among western nations, bills of rights stand little chance of gaining any real legal traction.
The recent travails of net neutrality policies have brought matters of Internet access to the fore. A few major telcos like CenturyLink, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon have become the virtual gatekeepers of the Internet, and they tend to reject the tenets of net neutrality, acting as though they are private companies rather than government-enforced pseudo-monopolies. Regardless of their actual status, they reside in a grey area that is neither public nor private, meaning also that many of the infrastructure components of the Internet are neither public nor private, although many service providers are more clearly private.
This situation creates difficulties when individuals (or organizations) claim ownership of the Internet. For instance, the Web We Want Campaign “[calls] on people around the world to stand up for their right to a free, open and truly global Internet.” But such campaigns invariably run into the issue of whether others can be forced to provide services in certain ways but not others—for instance, should Comcast be forced to allow Netflix traffic without charging fees under pain of bandwidth throttling? When the infrastructure is public, this question is a bit less murky than when the infrastructure is private, but the corporate structure of the U.S. and other western nations—particularly in utilities and communications—makes such distinctions extremely difficult to make. Of course, mutually agreed-on principles among everyone involved in the network is one thing, but the enforcement of the “rights” of some all too often comes at the cost of the rights of others.
More Fundamental Than the Internet
Berners-Lee said, “Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.” Of course, the possibility of open government existed before the Internet, so this statement is a little naïve. Even ignoring that aspect, however, an open and responsible government is clearly a prerequisite to an open Internet, and not necessarily vice versa.
As long as individuals consent to a government that is lawless and refuses to be constrained in its power, the Internet will remain in danger of subversion, whether through censorship or NSA spying or bandwidth throttling or any number of other tactics. Unfortunately, however, the will to see real changes in government is absent. Witness the exploding debt in the U.S.: eventually, the credit card will max out, but no one is willing to see real cuts in their pet projects. And talk of budget balancing is always stymied by incessant calls for higher taxes, which is analogous to a credit-card junky demanding a higher salary as a cure for his spending addiction.
Furthermore, the obsession with national security—which translates in the U.S. into “empire,” since no nation or group poses any real military threat—means that individual rights will inevitably fail to withstand the onslaught of government. Even the Magna Carta has fallen by the wayside in the name of national security (translated: government whim rather than law).
A bill of rights for the Internet would turn out to be just as effective as the U.S. Bill of Rights—in other words, not very—unless major changes are undertaken in the way western nations view the nature and, specifically, limits of government. But when the government already acknowledges no limits to its power and has an almost unlimited credit card to buy compliance, such changes seem unlikely at best. So even in the western (“free”) world, don’t expect NSA spying, corporate cronyism and other dirty tricks to end anytime soon.