Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

After 25 years, are we better off constitutionally with the Internet?

March 12, 2014 by Scott Bomboy


Today marks the unofficial 25th birthday of the Internet as we know it. But now the Web’s founder is asking for a “global constitution” to protect privacy rights of people in ways that weren’t even available to be violated before the Internet began.

Internet_Archive_mirror_serversOn March 12, 1989, British software consultant Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, a physics laboratory in Switzerland that hosted visiting international scientists doing research into particle physics. On that day, Berners-Lee wrote the first draft of a proposal for what would become an Internet populated by web browsers, first on computers and much later on mobile devices.

In 1990, Berners-Lee accessed the first Web page ever built. But it took three more years for people to understand the World Wide Web’s potential. With the advent of the Netscape browser and America Online, the Web took off in popularity in the second half of the 1990s.

Today, the pervasiveness of the modern Internet is a major factor in many constitutional issues, from presidential elections to revolutions to privacy. While the Internet allows for unlimited potential for people to communicate, it also allows for an almost unlimited ability for others to see private information in ways that didn’t exist before 1989.

That fact isn’t lost on Berners-Lee, who in an interview with The Guardian on Wednesday made a call for an online “Magna Carta” to protect the open operation of the Internet and the privacy of its users.

"We need a global constitution – a bill of rights,” Berners-Lee said. He is involved in an effort called The Web We Want, which is seeking to draft “an Internet Users Bill of Rights for every country.”

"Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years,” Berners-Lee said.

The irony in the timing of Berners-Lee statements came as more revelations were released about the scope of U.S. government’s surveillance efforts.

The New York Times said on Tuesday that a classified document called the “Raw Take Order” was issued in 2002 and approved by a secret court. (Information about the order was supplied by fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.)

The order, the Times said, was the first instance where the secret court approved a mass gathering of phone and e-mail information about American citizens and foreign nationals without the traditional protections extended by the Fourth Amendment.

The Times also said the Raw Take Order “relaxed limits on sharing private information about Americans with foreign governments.”

This week, journalist Julia Angwin from Pro Publica visited the National Constitution Center to talk about her new book, “Dragnet Nation,” which depicts in great detail the personal and private information available to private companies and the government, in the era of Facebook and Google.

Angwin compared the current surveillance abilities of marketers and the government to the East German Stasi, the dreaded secret police that controlled the Soviet satellite state back in 1989. (You can read more about the Stasi’s data-collection efforts on Pro Publica’s web site.

At its best (or worst), the Stasi had dossiers on 25 percent of East German citizens, using a combination of mail and telephone surveillance, and informants. In her book, Angwin spoke with the director of the Stasi archives, who said the secret police “would have loved” the current ability of the U.S. government to conduct surveillance.

In an interview with CNet published on Tuesday, Berners-Lee recognized that governments should have some limited ability to gather information in a legal context.

“The challenge for the USA is to put in place some agency, some court which has a lot more power than the FISA court [which currently oversees some data-gathering activities] -- a lot more teeth and a lot more respect,” he said.

But he also wanted a freer Web, in some ways like the world was before the Internet became a goldmine of privacy information.

“The spying stuff will be probably be controlled by organizations, and you have to bring social systems for holding those organizations accountable. Those social systems will be based on fundamental values -- I have the right to use the Web without worrying about being spied upon. I have the right to connect to your Web site no matter what it is, what politics you have, what color and culture you are,” he said.

Do you think we’re better off with or without the Internet after 25 years, or in other words, is the lack of online privacy an acceptable price to pay for freedom of communication? Let us know below in our comments area.

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