Pic: AP.

Twenty five years ago, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee filed a memo that led to the creation of the World Wide Web. Today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is using the anniversary to call for an “online Magna Carta” to protect and enshrine the independence of the medium he created and the rights of its users worldwide.
For years, he has warned governments and companies are moving away from the founding principles of the web, and said new rules were needed to protect the “open, neutral” system.

“We need a global constitution – a bill of rights,” he told the Guardian.

The proposal is not the only one – Open Technology Institute fellow James Losey counts at least six bills of Internet rights, dating back to 1996 – and not even the first to invoke the spirit of the 13th century Angevin charter (that honor belongs to the proposed Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom).

The Internet has been running since 1983, but before the Web – and especially before the first graphical browser, Mosaic, appeared in 1993 – almost nobody knew or cared about it. Two decades later and the Web has piled on almost one billion web pages – and plenty of expectations.

A 2010 GlobeScan/BBC poll found 79% of adults surveyed regard Internet access as their “fundamental right”. In parts of Asia, those numbers are higher (South Korea 96%; China 87%). In fact, across East Asia in particular, many of those surveyed felt they “couldn’t cope” without the Internet (Japan, at 85%, was the highest).

While the pre-Snowden leaks poll appears quaint – privacy came only third on a list of concerns for users, behind “fraud” and “violent and explicit content” – it shows how far the web has moved from obscurity to necessity. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, even noted the BBC survey in a 2011 report to the the UN Security Council (UNSC).

The high-mindedness of the Sir Tim’s proposal is illustrated on the Web We Want campaign’s website, with a quote from the preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): human beings shall enjoy “freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.” We can’t achieve this vision, the campaign claims, “without an open, universal Web.”

Proponents of a right to Internet access often cite the UDHR, in particular Article 25, which enshrines “the right to a standard of living […] including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” (my emphasis). Articles 19 and 20, which guarantee freedoms of expression and association respectively, are also cited. Last year, on advice from the Special Rapporteur, a 2011 UN Security Council Resolution [.doc] affirmed that the same rights people enjoy offline also apply online.

Some countries have already recognized Internet access as a right: France’s highest court effectively declared Internet access a fundamental right in 2009, and the constitutional court of Costa Rica reached a similar decision in 2010. In Finland, a 2009 decree requires every Internet connection to have a speed of at least one megabit per second.

Which is great, if you live in those countries (proposals are also being considered in Brazil and the Philippines). But a binding global mechanism to protect online access remains elusive, and in any case, regulation has been anathema to to the Internet since inception – how can we ensure any agreement fortifies rights, instead of limiting them?

In his report to the UN, La Rue declared the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights,” and that ensuring universal access should be a priority for all states. He noted that giving people the “basic human right” of Internet access isn’t always feasible, but it shouldn’t stop governments from trying.

That must be music to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ears, whose company has invested $1 billion to get the developing world online over the past few years. In a paper published on Facebook’s website last year entitled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?”, Zuck’s answer appears to be “Yes.” Or he certainly wants it to be.

From Tahrir square to the Open Source movement and savetheinternet.com, ‘rights’ are ubiquitous in discussions about the Internet, yet there are few actual provisions that protect your access. The Web We Want initiative wants to change that.

Berners-Lee – who chose not to commercialise his 1989 invention – rejects the idea that government and commercial control of the Internet is inevitable, telling the Guardian it would be “impossible.”

“Not until they prise the keyboards from our cold, dead fingers,” he said.