The Internet Bill of Rights

Lunedì, 31 Luglio, 2006
Contribution to the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum
Vittorio Bertola

1. Introduction

This document introduces the concept of an “Internet Bill of Rights”, a brief discussion on why it was brought forward, and some of the different points of view on this matter.

2. Overview and history of the concept

Since the Internet was created, people and organizations that used it began to realize that it would bring deep changes in all sectors of society: economy, politics, culture, media, interpersonal relationships, hobbies, jobs... everything is being deeply affected by the changes brought forward by the Internet, and by the advent of the Information Society.

It thus became clear that the traditonal rights and duties of the individuals would be deeply affected and reshaped by this new reality. Some traditional rights, such as privacy, became central to the new environment; all of a sudden, international transactions and interactions became part of everyone's everyday life, raising conceptual problems of sovereignty and jurisdiction; some new principle issues, such as access to and sharing of knowledge, or network neutrality, appeared as a consequence of the new technical possibilities and socio-economic models brought forward by the Internet.

While discussing the specific issues, more and more people started to realize that a holistic approach at the principle level could be required, so to discuss and agree on common guidelines to implement traditional human rights and duties into the new environment, and, if necessary, establish new ones.

Even if agreeing on principles at a global level is obviously a painful and difficult process, the intrinsic globality of the Internet gives no choice; if no common foundations for the fair, distributed and democratic development of the Internet are laid, the result will be an unfair and authoritarian development, determined by the interests of a few powerful groups and countries. It is especially crucial to weaker stakeholders, especially individual citizens and the developing world, that rights and principles are clearly stated, so that they can be upheld and promoted on an ongoing basis.

This is why the idea of an “Internet Bill of Rights” was conceived: a document that, building on the existing internationally agreed declarations of rights, could define how they apply to the Internet and to the global Information Society, and augment them when necessary to deal with the new situation.

However, even if there is broad agreement on the usefulness of such a document, there is no common effort to get to it yet. Many different views are held on its scope and content, and on how to draft it in an open and inclusive way. Further discussion is necessary to agree on these matters.

3. The Bill of Rights and the WSIS

The World Summit on Information Society was born from the same line of thinking as many of the efforts for an Internet Bill of Rights: the United Nations and its member countries realized the need for a global discussion on principles and guidelines for a fair development of the Information Society, of which the Internet is the main instrument and also the symbol.

To this regard, the documents resulting from the WSIS can already be considered a fundamental statement of principles. At the same time, they need to be turned into a shorter definition of rights and duties from the point of view of the individual, written in a simple and clear language, that can be communicated and immediately used all throughout the globe.

The WSIS itself prompted many of the discussions on the Bill of Rights (as better described in the next section). Workshops and meetings on the matter were held at the Summit and in other related events.

4. Some existing efforts

In the past, many different efforts have been started to draft documents and define principles, by different stakeholder groups and in different ways. Without any pretense of completeness, this section briefly presents four of such different efforts, with the purpose of providing a glimpse on the diversity of approaches.

4.1. Forum Internet

“Forum Internet” is an effort started by the French government, that aims to create an open space for the discussion of the rights and duties of users of the Internet. As described on their website:

“The idea of creating a specific body that would reflect on the legal issues raised by the Internet first appeared in France in the report of 1998 of the Conseil d'Etat (French Council of State)-the supreme legal and administrative authority and advising council of the government-entitled " Internet et les réseaux numériques " ("The Internet and the digital networks"). Then the French Prime Minister put Member of Parliament Christian Paul in charge of further reflection, the result of which was a report in July 2000, entitled " Du droit et des libertés sur internet " ("On rights and liberties on the Internet"); it confirmed the relevance of the idea and used the term "Forum" for the first time.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin then decided to start the project of the Internet Rights Forum in December 2000, and appointed Mrs Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, member of the Conseil d'Etat (French Council of State) at its head. As the result of a collective reflection taking into account the interdependence of the public and private sectors on the Web and the quick evolution of modern technologies, the Forum is a permanent area of dialogue and reflection aiming at the development of the rules and uses of this new space in the most harmonious way. This is part of a co-regulation project of the Internet in which self-regulation in the private sector and the regulations of the various public institutions would coexist.”

The forum released a number of different charters, defining rights and duties of the users of the Internet in specific fields; for example, a declaration of rights and duties of administrators of web-based discussion forums.

4.2. The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

A very different effort is the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1996. It was an individual effort, rather than collective; it was the result of a single thinker emerging from the early pioneering years of the Internet in the United States. It reflects a specific and very strong point of view, focusing on the assertion of a right of “independence” of the Internet from traditional, government-based regulation. Nonetheless, it is one of the most famous and influential documents in the history of the Internet.

The declaration can be found at the URL

4.3. APC's Charter of Communication Rights

The Association for Progressive Communications is one of the most known and respected NGOs operating in the field of communication rights and development, and involving a great number of individuals and local organizations from all over the world.

In 2001, it developed a charter that includes a definition of rights and principles in seven broad areas tied to communications: the right to communicate, freedom of expression, diversity and control of content, free software and intellectual property rights, privacy, Internet governance, and awareness and enforcement of these rights. As the charter itself states, “The themes and principles outlined express our community's views and goals concerning the right of people and organisations to use the Internet freely, particularly in their work for social, economic and environmental justice. We refer specifically to the Internet, however, these principles are relevant to all other ICTs (including telephone, radio, and others).”.

The full charter can be found at the URL

4.4. The “Tunis Mon Amour” campaign

The “Tunis Mon Amour” campaign was started in 2005 by the Italian Member of Parliament Fiorello Cortiana, anticipating the second phase of the World Summit on Information Society, to support the proposal for a definition of an “Internet Bill of Rights” at the United Nations level. It soon obtained support by personalities from all stakeholder groups, including the Brazilian Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, the founder of the free software movement, Richard Stallman, and the founder of the Creative Commons campaign, professor Lawrence Lessig.

The campaign focused on asking the WSIS to adopt the idea and give birth to a process for its realization; a workshop on this matter was held in Tunis.

5. Conclusions

As discussed above, there already have been many efforts to define rights and duties of the individual users of the Internet; while this is a proof of an actual necessity, it also shows the risk of many fragmented activities competing the one with the other. In the bigger environment of the follow-up to the World Summit of Information Society, which in itself was an effort to come to agreement on global principles for the orderly development of the Information Society, a way should be found to gather all interested stakeholders and draft a single, broadly supported principle document that could then be used as a foundation for further activities.