Do we need an internet Bill of Rights?

The US Constitution’s first ten amendments make up what is called the Bill of Rights. These guarantee freedom of religion, of the press, the right to a speedy and public trial, and other rights that were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution itself. As I was sitting in on a telecommunications class taught by industry expert Andres Carvallo last week, he speculated about something that I’m going to call an Internet bill of rights. It doesn’t exist yet, and there are good technical and economic reasons to suspect it never will, but it’s a great idea and deserves airing.

Right now, your rights online are a hodge-podge of hundreds or maybe thousands of legal boilerplate agreements that you’ve checked that you agree to, probably by lying that you have read and understood them. As I mentioned recently, this is a nasty little piece of hypocrisy that nevertheless is forced on anyone who deals with computers or the Internet. But legally, your rights online are nothing more than the sum total of all the incomprehensible technical gobbledegook of those fine-print agreements, plus any applicable laws of the municipality, county, state, or country you happen to live in.

And that’s just the stuff you are entitled to know about. Internet companies sometimes do things with your data that they don’t admit to in their agreements, and the only way we find out about such things is through news reports of data breaches and underhanded dealings. Such is the fragmented state of online rights today.

Carvallo’s vision is this: you, the individual user, get to say exactly what your online privacy and other rights are. If you don’t want anybody sending you ads for stuff you view online, you can say so. If you don’t want companies accumulating data about your eight-year-old daughter when she uses a toy that’s connected to the Internet, you can say so. And if you’re on social media platforms, you don’t have to figure out each one’s arcane permissions structure individually. You just state your preferences once for all in a centralized location, and everybody you deal with has to follow the rules you set up.

Now this notion may not be original to Carvallo. But it’s the first time I’ve heard of such a concept, and it’s very appealing. It would also be very hard to implement, but as he spoke in the context of teaching an engineering class, he encouraged the students to think of future technical possibilities, of which this was one.

You could push this even farther, to the extent of being able to say what ads you do and don’t see. Google has been making a feeble effort in this direction for some time, in that when I close an ad that’s popped up in the middle of some article I’m reading, I will sometimes get a Google Ads option to say whether I never want to see that ad again and why. But this is only a tiny step in the direction of the comprehensive vision of personal control that an Internet bill of rights would involve.

Of course, the reason most of the Internet is free is because there are ads. And having the privilege of saying no to some or all ads would mean that for you, anyway, the companies would have to find some other way to make money. And they’re not about to do that, not if the present system works for them.

Pay-for-viewing websites are a step in this direction. In my limited experience, they seem mainly to be operated by newspapers and other old-school media who are striving to maintain some vestige of the old subscription model that worked for so many decades for physical newspapers and magazines. So something like this can work, but only within the context of a single organization. Fixing things so no matter what you looked at, you’d never see ads anywhere on the Internet is presently almost unimaginable, although I suppose somebody could come up with some kind of shell or filter gizmo that might do that.

Which brings us to the technical question of how an Internet bill of rights could be implemented. My answer is, I have no idea. But anything that has to work with any website you go to, would have to be built into the very structure of the Internet, and that means global standards and protocols. When strictly technical problems come up, such as running out of IP addresses or something like that, the world’s engineers have figured out a pretty efficient and effective way of forming working groups, hashing out a technical solution, and agreeing on a standard that implements it.

But this only works for technical matters. Things that threaten to affect an industry’s bottom line drastically are not suitable for the technical standards-setting mechanism. And an Internet bill of rights such as we’re discussing would be viewed as a threat by most online for-profit entities.

In that case, we’d have to get into the political, social, and economic aspects of the problem. And you’re not going to solve those kinds of matters with merely a working group of engineers. Something like the United Nations or its International Telecommunications Union might have to be involved, but again, they primarily handle technical matters. Because of the international nature of the Internet, an effective implementation of an Internet bill of rights would have to be agreed on worldwide. And getting the world to agree on something even as simple as what time it is, can be a hard thing to do, let alone a matter affecting the online activities of everybody on earth.

Well, we’ve traveled from one classroom in San Marcos, Texas to the whole Internet in one column. I don’t think we’re any closer to having an Internet bill of rights than we were when we started. But it’s a nice idea, and I thank Andres Carvallo for bringing it up. And if you’re optimistic, maybe you think that this won’t be the last time you read about it.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.


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