Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, amended

I’ve amended my proposed Bill of Rights in Cyberspace thanks to a suggestion in the comments from Jeff Sonderman: All data are created equal. I made that all bits are created equal, which broadens it somewhat and is quite relevant today in the discussion of net neutrality that will explode because of an Appeals Court decision in Washington that told the FCC it did not have jurisdiction to tell Comcast to stop discriminating on bits.

Here’s the rub: On the one hand, I do not want government regulation of the internet. On the other hand, I do not want monopoly discrimination against bits on the internet. I see it as a principle that all bits are, indeed, created equal. But how is this enforced when internet service is provided by monopolies? Regulation. But I don’t want regulation. But… That is the vicious cycle of the net neutrality debate.

At a Union Square Ventures event a few years ago, Tom Evslin said that regulation is a temporary necessity until the marketplace and technology open up internet access to competition. In a competitive environment, we won’t tolerate the ISP that hampers our service. Now, we’re stuck.

The other path to fixing this is legislation. But, of course, that is another form of regulation of the internet: a claim of sovereignty by government over the net that I want to avoid.

All this, I believe, is all the more reason to have a set of principles and standards we, the internet nation, can point to, all the more reason to have a Bill of Rights for Cyberspace. Here is mine, amended:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble.
IV. We have the right to act.
V. We have the right to control our data.
VI. We have the right to control our identity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.

: MORE: Dan Gillmor on the decision. The Hill blog has more details.

  • Brilliant, Jeff. The lack of public awareness on this topic is frightening. If only everyone knew how dangerously close to regulation their net freedoms were right now…

  • Tex Lovera


    Is web access really a monopoly-run thing? Where I’m at (metro area around 250,000), I can choose from one DSL, one cable, and two satellite providers. (Not to mention dial-up – too slow!)

    What’s your situation?

    • Marcotte Anderson

      I was going to ask the same thing. I think the ISP market in the States is closer to an oligopoly. Here in Los Angeles, we actually have many many companies offering to connect us (as a business – only a few as a private individual), but most of those are Tier 2+ providers. I believe the only networks we can connect through are owned by Time Warner and AT&T. Wireless (3G) is an option for individuals, but I wouldn’t want to make my company rely on it at this point.

      I’m on the fence though, but with my feet on the side of regulation. I’m not 100% convinced that a free market will give us a ‘net without bit discrimination, even if we have several ISPs in all markets. I could be wrong though, and I hope I am, because there is a lot of money lobbying against net neutrality, and I have a sinking feeling that the will of the ISPs will prevail in Washington.

    • In most rural areas of the country choice of ISP is extremely limited. I for example can either choose Dial Up or DSL Service with Iowa Telecom or I can get Cable service with Mediacom. I have no other options.

      Small rural towns often sell charter rights to companies to provide services where a company would not normally be willing to provide service due to lower population. The investment to provide service to such communities generally out weighs the return unless the local city government is willing to limit competition. It follows much of the same setup as rural electric serves follow.

  • I would modify VIII a bit more to include the idea that all bits are created equal in the mind of their creator, however their value is modified (up or down) based on their functionality as measured by the recipient. For example, a piece of “spam” is much like any other piece of spam and has equal value to the creator of said “spam”. However as a recipient of said “spam”, it has a value based on the functionality of the “spam”. One recipient will delete it, while one will buy the product.

    What I’m getting at here is that the carrier in the middle does -not- get to adjust the value of those bits based on their perceived value of those bits. The only people who get to place value on the bits are the sender and receiver, not the carrier.

    • James

      I want the carrier to place the lowest possible value on delivering billions of pieces of spam (which may include virues and malware). It crowds out/slows down my handful of emails, raises my access costs, and wastes my time.

      • Spam defined by you, them, or the sender of the spam

  • Pretty much my thoughts as well, Jeff. I quote this approvingly in

  • So, I like to look for parallels for things like this. How about we try on newspapers.

    Supposedly they all have access to the same pipe (raw news events), then they take it, massage it, comment on it, bury some, promote others… all based on their own agenda. Historically news consumers have chosen their outlet based on which one most closely matched their own views. Will consumers now choose ISP’s based on their filters and bit bias?

    I submit that if they try, it will create a huge opportunity for the un-filtered carrier. The ISP that doesn’t filter… gives you the raw Internet in all its glory and gore. It will take time but the time will come. And with the arrival of more ubiquitous wireless access, maybe that will be the pathway to the unfettered Internet.

    As with news outlets, this is a poor reaction by some ISPs that may create short term gain for them, and yet cost them the game in the end.

    At least that’s my take on it!


    • Tex Lovera

      In the US at least, I don’t think “filtering” of data or sites by ISPs is as much of an issue as “throttling” of sites (such as Comcast throttling BitTorrent users data usage). I don’t think the ISPs are so much (politically) concerned about WHAT we’re accessing as (economically) HOW MUCH we’re accessing.

      Of course, that could quickly change; I could see Comcast blocking access to sites with “unauthorized” NBC videos, for example.

      I’m not really for government regulation (particularly by an over-zealous FCC). But if there is not enough open competiton to allow consumers to vote with their pocketbooks, it may come to that.

      • Comcast is trying to purchase NBC Universal. If that is successful this ruling would allow Comcast to limit or block it’s subscribers access to those networks it would directly compete with.

  • Substitute the term “printing press” in lieu of “internet” and then imagine how the public debate would be structured.

    I mean, there’s a finite number of printing presses in any given community, so therefore shouldn’t the FCC (or pick some other alphabet gov’t agency) be involved in how resources are allocated?

    Oh, wait…

  • Jeff, you’re descendng deeper and deeper into madness. “Bits” are meaningless entities which serve to represent information. Ask yourself in a sober moment if “all communications are equal”. Encoding communication in one form or another doesn’t change its value.

    Don’t make such moronic statements, you know better.

  • James

    The larger issue is that a government agency proposed sweeping regulations that the SCOTUS ultimately told them that they had no lawful authority to impose. They went forward with their plans despite warnings that they were going beyond their legal authority. This should be something to ponder in any nation that seeks to retain rule of law within a constitutional republic.

  • Given all the bits Jeff has generated in defense of Howard Stern’s potty mouth and Janet Jackson’s nipple, he knows better than to argue that the FCC is free to make up laws out of thin air. I suppose it’s a matter of what the cause of day happens to be.

  • Rick

    With very very few exceptions I can dial any working number on my telephone and expect some connection regardless of the nature of the sounds coming across the “wire”. This is not a result of competition. The voice network is not subject to connectivity based on the carrier’s analysis of the content and commercial or political opinion thereof.
    So should internet connectivity. Absent realistic opportunities for competition, ISPs should consist of at least 2 parts: internet bandwidth (the utility component), and everything else.
    If the FCC lacks jurisdiction the legistlature should provide it, and at the same time specifically ban the FCC’s heavy hand on content in other arenas.

  • Depending on where you live, ISPs may be a monopoly, an oligopoly, or a dynamic and competitive market.

    Government, however, is by definition, always a monopoly. I’ll take my chances with the market until we start seeing some real abuses that need addressing. I’m not ready to invite regulation in to fight what is, so far, a mostly invisible monster. (It reared it’s ugly head once, and was beat down by the ingenuity of it’s own customers.)

  • Eric Gauvin

    You should have Prokofy Neva on TWIG to discuss this with you. You’ve criticized people’s balls recently. Do you have the balls for that?

  • cm

    Why should these rights be placed in cyberspace when they don’t exist in the real world?

    In all societies, rights depend on responsible usage. Stop using responsibly and you loe your rights. But as soon as there are any conditions, then those that impose the conditions really take away those rights.

    1. The right to connect: So if a person is placed in custody they should also be provided with internet access? If a teacher confiscates a mobile phone because a kid is making calls/tweeting instead of listening is that a violation of the right to connect?

    2. Right to speak. What does that mean? Where is that even allowed? Try shouting “Bomb!” or “Fire!” in an airport and tell us how that freedom of speech idea works out for you. Same deal causing panic by tweeting about a hoax. What about kiddy porn etc?

    When you’re saying ISPs should be forced into providing a level of service this goes completely against the principles of market forces. Surely market forces should be able to provide things that people care about.

    The internet isn’t free and infinite. There are physical limitations that limit how many bits can be stuffed down a pipe. If ISPs treated all bits as equal (ie. did not throttle P2P etc) then other users would have reduced service.

    Making all bits equal is a really bad idea. In networking we have certain QoS indicators, one of the most important being isochronous data. isochronous data is data that needs to be delivered immediately or the data value is lost. An obvious example of this is VoIP data. Delaying VoIP data by a few seconds kills a call. Delaying P2P data by a few seconds has no significant impact. Thus data types need to be both prioritised and the ISPs need to preserve priorities.

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  • Liberals can be such idiots sometimes. By saying “I do not want government regulation” you’re just shooting yourself in the foot by ceding to the stupid, ignorant rants of the right wing and libertarians. The reality is that a capitalist system cannot be sustained without regulation that ensures property rights, open access to markets and competition.
    Evslin may have a purely academic argument in saying that regulation is only temporarily needed until some there is enough competition that we can rely on the “invisible hand” of the market, but then Evslin’s ideal state of unnecessary regulation would itself only be temporary since once there is no regulation you would see first that competition would generate some “winner” in the marketplace who then inevitably used it’s winning position to limit competition, block access to the market etc. After a period of no-regulation, you would have to reinstate regulation to recover what you had lost!
    In the absence of regulation, you get monopoly or oligopoly and once that happens, you have a form of centralized control worse than any of the “socialist” systems that the right wing brown shirts fear.

    If you believe in the power or wisdom of the market, then you must accept the responsibility to protect that power or wisdom by regulating actions that diminish it. Regulation is not inherently bad. Rather than fight regulation, you should be concerning yourself with ensuring that we have the right regulation imposed in the best manner. Regulation that ensures open access to markets and limits anti-competitive actions is good.

    Network neutrality is important enough to warrant enforcement via regulation. The only question we should have is: What is the best way to use regulation to ensure network neutrality?

    bob wyman

  • Greg Billock

    To me the important thing about this is the idea that we need a pro-active effort to entrench guarantees like this into the law, rather than a purely reactive approach to fighting things like ACTA and DCMA when they come up. That will always be difficult, but proposing a positive statement of digital rights has the possibility of assembling a broad coalition of supporters and go much farther in accomplishing the goal than fighting an endless procession of efforts to curtail those rights.

  • nutellaontoast

    I’m very confused as to how regulations differ from laws differ from this “bill of internet rights” thing you just created. Why not just say “I think regulations should be fair and simple as opposed to complex?”

  • Bien Hua Bolas

    Join the club guys, I’m a gunowner and we have been in the SIGHTS of regulation for ever seems like. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened. Who knows what was at the bottom of the Microsoft deal with the government??

  • Alejandro

    I do not agree with dropping “the right to speak in our languages”, and I haven’t found any comment or reason against it, why did you drop it?

    • I didn’t think I expressed it well and I combined the thought into one as I thought it was somewhat redundant. But point taken.

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  • cf

    That’s rubbish. If a bit with value 0 is the same as a bit with value 1, the internet will be a place of no use… So bits are not created equal. There are exactly two types.

  • >>At a Union Square Ventures event a few years ago, Tom Evslin said that regulation is a temporary necessity until the marketplace and technology open up internet access to competition.<<
    The concept that competitive markets self-regulate via consumer choice is poor IMHO. Why? Lack of transparency. Will the public really know for certain how the ISP prefers or discriminates in the passage of data packets in their system? The information to the public will be fragmentary at best. Large corporations always do that which leads to greatest profits. If they have a very large financial incentive to play traffic cop on the information super highway so that they can take bribes for regulating the speed at which certain packets of data travel. That is their sole interest in being given the power to slow down or speed up traffic.

    Consumer protection should never be left to the corporations, ever.

  • Who? Who is but the form following the function of what and what I am is a man in a mask.

    If I may put my two cents in: although there are trolls in this discussion and I do certainly not agree with their unnecessary harsh tone of voice, they do raise an interesting point.

    I do believe the rights’s 1 through 4 to be self evident. Maybe it would be much more powerful to reaffirm them.

    The fact is the pundits are right. People have these self evident rights already. The problem is that they are trampled on by governments. So reaffirming the global basic human rights and explain how they work on the Internet is all we need to do.

    This will make sure that any discussion about censureship, filtering, the freedom of Internet or limiting Internet access will immediately start the true underlying debate about basic self evident human rights.

    Example 1
    Government : “We need a filter for the interwebs thing to protect us”
    We the People : “Oh so you are limiting my freedom of speech? Why can’t I install my own filter of my own choosing if I want? I don’t need a government for that!”

    Example 2
    Government: “We need to ban those awful p2p networks”
    We the People : “Oh so we don’t have a right to assemble any longer, why?”

    Example 3
    Government : “We are going to DPI your Internet traffic.”
    We the people : “Hmmm so I don’t have privacy to correspondence any longer. Why?”

    Nobody on this planet will ever agree to any laws limiting these basic self evident rights.

    Unfortunately only the people that know a little bit about how the technical side of the Internet works, understand the impact of these new laws.

    That’s why we, as an Internet society, ow it to the rest of the public to explain to them, that all these new laws (ACTA, DEA etc..) are violations of these basic self evident human rights!

    We understand what is happening. If *WE* fail to explain this to our fellow countrymen, they won’t understand until it is too late.

    So explaining this, is not only our responsibility, but also our *duty* in this place in time!

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  • Great start on these rights. However, for many of these rights, governments are already claiming rights to monitor (with or w/o our endorsement or knoweldge), so I’m not sure how you separate these rights w/o also including the rights to not be monitored constantly.

    While nice in concept, the concepts underlying these two “rights”:

    V. We have the right to control our data.
    VI. We have the right to control our identity.

    …are still being debated, which makes these more rhetorical in nature than anything truly meaningful. “our data”, when you get right down to it, makes little sense which is why copyright and privacy debates are so difficult. Saying “our data” implies a metaphor of property right which does not clearly exist for data. Copyright is a grant of license or a privilege, but not ownership in the way physical property is owned. Also, there is no agreed upon boundaries to what “our data” is. If a site tracks user visits around their site, is this “our data”? If so, what makes this “ours”? We don’t own our address in the physical world, are you suggesting that we should own our physical address online? Tough boundary issues here.

    As for identity, given that this has yet to be normalized and anyone can use your name to establish an email address w/Yahoo!, Google, Hotmail, et. al., w/o repercussions, I’m at a loss for what this means in the context of “rights”. Heck, I could even establish at Facebook or Twitter account in your name if I wanted to and build up connections from unsuspecting acquaintances of yours who would be deceived merely because I used a name that looks like yours ;)

    We have a lot of work to do as a community to resolve these issues before getting to this stage.

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