Do We Need a Global Digital Bill of Rights?

Back in March, Tim Berners-Lee — who invented the world wide web, no less — issued a call to citizens in different countries to pressure their governments to produce a bill of rights to ensure net neutrality and protect the rights of web users worldwide.

It’s a far cry from the heady days, not so long ago, of cyber-libertarians rallying around A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. But then again, we live in different times. The growing evidence of abuses committed by intelligence services (south of the border obviously, but here at home as well) are only among the most obvious concerns about privacy violations.

True, there is pushback against state violations of privacy rights. In a unanimous decision handed down in June in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that police must first obtain a warrant to search the contents of someone’s cell phone in all but the most extraordinary circumstances.

Similarly in Canada, our own top court in R. V. Spencer declared that police who want access to the personal information associated with an IP address must first get a court warrant before approaching the internet service provider.

So if our courts have our backs when it comes to privacy, we can count on them to enforce our rights… Right?

Trouble is, we need not worry only about the state. Section 8 of the Charter may prohibit unreasonable search and seizure committed by law enforcement. But how are the activities of private actors – Facebook, Google and Amazon – shaping the future of privacy and free expression? These internet giants are making a mint off collecting our personal information. And though privacy watchdogs regularly give them a hard time – at times the courts have a hand in it too – there is growing impatience with insufficient oversight over their data-mining techniques. No doubt Mark Zuckerberg has found religion on privacy, now that he seems to be changing his tune, but let’s call it what it is: a pivot that is neatly tailored to a self-regulated business model.

So the question remains: Do we need a bill of that limits the gathering and use of data on internet users, along the lines of what Brazil enacted in April? And given the cross-border nature of internet traffic, is there any value in adopting a shared document of principle that would serve as an international standard?

Obviously, figuring out how a digital bill of rights would work on a global scale is a real challenge. What provisions would it include? What would make it robust enough to work? How would we give it teeth? Is it even possible to have a global consensus on an internet bill of rights, given our diverse cultural sensitivities? And how would opposition to state surveillance square with enforcement of a bill of rights?

At the upcoming CBA Canadian Legal Conference in St. John’s, National Magazine is organizing a picnic lunch on the topic. We’ve invited five experts (Yves Boisvert, Patricia Kosseim, John Hoben, Norbert Griffin and Mandy Woodland) to spend six minutes each sharing their perspectives on these questions. A moderated discussion with audience participation will follow. If any of you are there, please drop in on us.

And if you’re not, please share your thoughts and questions.






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