Web Turns 25, Inventor Calls For Internet Bill of Rights

If a free and open Web is to stay that way, Tim Berners-Lee suggested, then a bill of rights for the Web should be established.

by / March 12, 2014
World Wide Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee says an online bill of rights would protect the Web from government influences that impinge on privacy, free speech or anonymity. Cristiano Sant´Anna/Flickr/campuspartybrasil

Twenty-five years after Tim Berners-Lee invented an open and neutral World Wide Web, he’s calling for an online bill of rights to keep it that way. The scheme would protect the Web from government influences that impinge on privacy, free speech or anonymity -- tenants Berners-Lee has supported in his outspoken criticism of both the British and American governments’ treatment of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Berners-Lee's vehicle for arriving at an Internet bill of rights is an initiative called the Web We Want, which aims to educate the public on the importance of keeping the Web open.

"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,” Berners-Lee told The Guardian. “It's not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it."

Berners-Lee also advocated severing the link between the Web and the U.S. Department of Commerce, which contracts the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to oversee the global allocation of IP addresses.

"The U.S. can't have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national,” he said. “There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm's length."

Berners-Lee noted that any human system needs laws, but warned against the possibility of a balkanized Internet if groups a nations cannot come to a consensus on the core issues.

Though Berners-Lee invented the Web and has long stood for protecting it, he also has come under criticism in recent years. Most recently, he supported the inclusion of digital rights management (DRM) capabilities in the newest version of the Web’s language, HTML5. The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a piece criticizing this move titled Lowering Your Standards.

Although DRM functionality would be optional, the EFF says the move threatens the open nature of the Internet. The group contends that DRM could lead to “a Web where you cannot cut and paste text; where your browser can't ‘Save As...’ an image; where the ‘allowed’ uses of saved files are monitored beyond the browser; where JavaScript is sealed away in opaque tombs; and maybe even where we can no longer effectively "View Source" on some sites...."

Though a bill of rights for the Web sounds noble, many question whether such a document would be honored by interested corporations, or more difficult still, whether the many stakeholders of the Internet are capable of agreeing on how it should be governed.