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Does the internet need a ‘Magna Carta’?


Yesterday, Sir Tim Berners Lee, on the 25th anniversary of his creation, the World Wide Web, spoke to BBC breakfast, bringing up some valid concerns about the internet and the implications of government surveillance.

He asked: ‘Are we going to continue on the road and just allow the governments to do more and more and more control – more and more surveillance? Or are we going to set up a bunch of values? Are we going to set up something like a Magna Carta for the world wide web and say, actually, now it’s so important, so much part of our lives, that it becomes on a level with human rights?’

But why does the internet warrant a constitution of sorts? Evidently it’s ‘important’ but what is it about this medium that is so special?A constitution is a document that essentially lays down the rules by which a country or organization must be governed by. Constitutions are highly regarded because they usually make sure that ruling organizations whether elected democratically or not, cannot get out of control.Exactly what about the internet constitutes the drafting of such a document?

Well, whether we like it or not, the internet has become increasingly assimilated into our livelihood. We currently live dual lives in two worlds: the real world and the virtual world. These two realities can be as closely related as we desire but that doesn’t change the fact that we are protected constitutionally in one world but not in the other.

In a TED talk, Mikko Hyponnen, chief research officer of F-secure, rather controversially implied that Google knows more about you than your family. He stated ‘We are brutally honest with search engines. You show me your search history, and I’ll find something incriminating or something embarrassing in five minutes. We are more honest with search engines than we are with our families.’

The government may not care about your private messages, snapchats or search history but we stand to lose a lot more than that. As our virtual and real lives become increasingly connected, we rely on the internet for things we have historically primarily exclusively done in the real world. Things like online petitions, the organizations of rallies and of course, our free speech.

Currently, internet surveillance occurs in most countries and is usually allowed if internet traffic goes through a country’s servers. As many popular websites and services are American (Facebook and Dropbox), there is distrust between countries with little foreign internet traffic, like most of eastern Europe, and countries with a sizeable amount of internet traffic, like the United States. We must universalize a constitution of sorts to clarify the rules of engagement and be able to determine whether a government is acting legally or illegally.

Entrusting the government with things so fundamental to our livelihood in the virtual world is bizarre. A system of checks and balances must exist;  if we can’t trust the government to honour our real world rights then it is completely irrational to trust them with our rights in the virtual world.

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