What use would a digital bill of rights be?

‘Sign it? I mean, have you seen these new Facebook terms and conditions?’ Unknown artist

The Liberal Democrats have been a lone voice among the parties calling for a digital bill of rights governing our growing use of the internet. But is it the right solution for the problem in hand?

Surveys suggest that the bill should pique the interest of at least a few floating voters, with almost three-quarters of British adults in one survey concerned over unauthorised access to their private information online.

The notion of such a digital bill of rights is not new, as the Liberal Democrats themselves acknowledge. A group of more than 500 writers called for an international bill of rights in December 2013, Tim Berners-Lee’s Web We Want campaign has called for a “Magna Carta for the internet”, and the iRights coalition has also championed digital rights for young people.

The Lib Dems' argument for its proposed Digital Rights Bill is to provide a single, comprehensive piece of legislation that brings together digital and online rights into a single document. For example, to ensure that civil and human rights in the physical world also apply online, and to establish the key rights that are particular to the digital sphere. It would also ensure greater transparency in how government and private companies use personal data, and empower citizens with control of their own data and make informed choices about their digital presence.

In view of post-Snowden fears about government surveillance, it’s encouraging that this digital bill of rights makes explicit the right for individuals, businesses and public bodies to use strong encryption. It also explicitly forbids surveillance the security and intelligence agencies from circumventing national legislation preventing them from collecting personal data by acquiring it from foreign agencies – as practised by GCHQ.

Shortfalls

There are two main areas in which the proposed Digital Rights Bill falls short. The first and most important is that it pays only very limited attention to the fundamentally international and cross-border nature of the Internet.

The bill appears to assume that UK citizens deal primarily with UK based services – which is clearly not the case, as can be seen by picking any handful of major companies: Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google are all US companies. It would have been helpful to see clear statements of how the proposed rights would apply to services based, or where data is stored and processed, outside the UK. In fact this bill and any other similar legislation in any other country simply cannot be truly effective unless coordinated internationally, as has been done with forthcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation.

Neither does it contain any measures that anticipate near-future developments. The internet of things for example is mentioned only in passing. Considering that we can already see huge potential for privacy and issues around control and use of data arising from the very few Internet of things devices already available (such as smart televisions) a more developed approach is needed.

Re-balance of power

Much of bill is in response to privacy violations by government agencies, and while the relationship between citizens and corporations features the positions are not clearly formulated. For example much depends on an yet-to-be-defined Code of Practice, to be defined through negotiation between government, corporations and user groups. Clearly the large internet firms would put their full weight into lobbying for a Code of Practice that favoured them at the expense of the internet user.

A truly progressive proposal to re-balance power between corporations and citizens might explicitly recognise the fact that personal information has become a form of currency as payment for the use of “free” apps or services, such as Facebook. A strong position might be to require that apps and services which access personal data must respect a “cooling-off period” during which no data may be harvested, in the same way that stores offer a similar no-quibble, money-back-guarantee for shoppers in the physical world.

So while this bill of rights contains the expected and some less expected measures, the jury is out on exactly how this will be implemented – which is not to say its unenforceable. With enough public backing, such a bill could be immensely positive for the future of digital rights in Britain, although the relatively minor discussion around it perhaps indicates how little political glamour is associated with the topic compared to others such as immigration, healthcare and the economy.