Is an Internet Bill of Rights Needed – And Can It Work?

The American public used to show little interest in the kind of ambitious regulation of computer technology and the internet that an “internet bill of rights” represents. From a business perspective, the concern was that government involvement would stifle innovation. From a public good perspective, there was worry that “government meddling” would do more to harm than help the average person.

Attitudes have shifted drastically in the last couple of years, and you can attribute that to the actions of Russian spies and certain players in the “big data” industry for the most part.

The main argument for an internet bill of rights is that internet-based technology has progressed to the point that it is inextricably intertwined with everyone’s life, but the shepherds of this technology cannot be counted on to adequately self-regulate. The use of social media by Russian intelligence agencies to influence American elections, the rise of “fake news” and the seemingly countless hacks of databases full of sensitive personal information all point to a need for proactive government regulation to protect rights and liberties.

What would this legislation look like? In anticipation of a likely House of Representatives win for the Democrats, minority (and most likely soon-to-be majority) House leader Nancy Pelosi tasked Rep. Ro Khanna of Silicon Valley with creating what is essentially the first draft.

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Congressman Khanna’s simple list of ten points (first published in the New York Times) focuses mostly on the handling of data, and you can see many of the cornerstone principles of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation reflected in it. The bill proposes that Americans have full knowledge of and access to all personal data that companies are collecting, that opt-in systems for all of this data be implemented, that there be a process in place to correct or delete personal data in a timely manner, and that reasonable business practices and accountability be required to protect data privacy. ISPs would also be prevented from collecting data that is not necessary to provide the requested service – e.g. no selling of things like browsing history, search queries and physical location.

However, it takes things a step further by implementing what is effectively the foundational principle of “net neutrality”: ” … to access and use the internet without internet service providers blocking, throttling, engaging in paid prioritization or otherwise unfairly favoring content, applications, services or devices.” In other words, this would guarantee ISPs cannot speed up or slow down your connection based on your personal use patterns.

The internet as a human right

The demand for government protections such as these seems most acute in the United States right now, but globally this is hardly the first effort of this nature. You can tie this back to the idea that access to the internet should be a basic human right, which has been expressed in a number of ways and in a number of different countries.

Why should internet access be considered a human right? The main argument has been that people cannot otherwise stay adequately informed, but as each year passes there is an even stronger case to be made that one cannot navigate their daily life without it. For example, ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber (which tend to be more affordable than taxis) and home grocery delivery almost always require internet access to make use of. The rise of the “gig economy” also means that many rely on the internet to make their living.

The ideas central to an internet bill of rights have been discussed in various countries since broadband became widely available in the early 2000s, but a potential watershed moment was the 2011 report filed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur that established the internet as a vital tool of “opinion and expression” and something that member states should make “widely available, accessible and affordable” even in times of political unrest. This developed further in 2016 when similar language was established in a non-binding resolution.


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