A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles. Also discuss at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Here are mine:

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A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

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* Bruce Sterling quoting Timothy Garton Ash on the state of freedom of information.
* Ethan Zuckerman: We can’t circumvent our way around censorship.
* Ethan Zuckerman on internet freedom.
* Rebecca MacKinnon’s Congressional testimony on internet freedom and Chinese censorship.
* Kevin Marks compares China’s policies and the U.K.’s Digital Britain bill.
* Clay Shirky: “What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.”

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Thanks to Benoit Raphael here is a French version of the Bill of Rights and here is a German version at Zeit Online. Now thanks to Itai Alter, here it is as a Google Doc in Hebrew.

And now, most appropriately, in Chinese. Note, however, the disclaimer at the bottom of that page (via Google Translate): “?This translation is only the purpose of language learning and reading, the original author and the translator and the translation of personal opinion has nothing to do made by Network].”

Also in Norwegian thanks to Arne Halvorsen. I hope that Arabic and Persian are coming.

And then (in German) there is an alternative version.

Another German translation here.