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The Web We Want: Could Canada Lead on a Digital Bill of Rights?

Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 15, 2014 as The Web We Want: Could Canada Lead on a Digital Bill of Rights?

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the drafting of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal to combine hypertext with the Internet that would later become the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee used the occasion to call for the creation of a global online “Magna Carta” to protect the rights of Internet users around the world.

The desire for enforceable global digital rights stands in sharp contrast to the early days of the Web when advocates were more inclined to tell governments to stay away from the burgeoning medium. For example, John Perry Barlow’s widely circulated 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, asked governments to “leave us alone”, claiming that conventional legal concepts did not apply online.

While the notion of a separate “cyberspace” would today strike many as inconsistent with how the Internet has developed into an integral part of everyday life, the prospect of a law-free online environment without government is even more at-odds with current realities. Rather than opposing government, there is a growing recognition of the need for governments to ensure that fundamental digital rights are respected.

Building on Berners-Lee’s vision of global online protections, the World Wide Web Foundation, supported by leading non-governmental organizations from around the world, has launched a “Web We Want” campaign that aims to foster increased awareness of online digital rights. The campaign focuses on five principles: affordable access, the protection of personal user information, freedom of expression, open infrastructure, and neutral networks that do not discriminate against content or users.

Supporters recognize that global protections are more likely to develop on a country-by-country basis, with potential domestic support for national digital bills of rights. In the United Kingdom, the opposition Liberal Democrats have already thrown their support behind a digital bill of rights, while the United Nations Human Rights Council has backed a resolution declaring Internet access and online freedom of expression a human right.

With Industry Minister James Moore set to unveil the long-awaited national digital strategy (reportedly to be dubbed Digital Canada 150), these issues have the potential to play a starring role.  

The government has identified universal access as a key issue, allocating $305 million in the most recent budget for broadband initiatives in rural and remote communities.  While there is some disagreement on a target date for universal Canadian broadband – the CRTC has set its goal at 2015, while the federal government is content with 2019 – there is a consensus that all Canadians should have affordable broadband access and that there is a role for the government to make that a reality in communities that the leading Internet providers have largely ignored.

The protection of personal information raises questions about the adequacy of current privacy rules and the concerns associated with widespread surveillance. Industry Canada’s Report on Plans and Priorities for 2014-15 quietly referenced “modernizing the privacy regime to better protect consumer privacy online” as a legislative priority for the coming year, the clearest signal yet that the government plans to re-introduce privacy reform.

The surveillance concerns will undoubtedly prove even more challenging, with the government saying little about the steady stream of revelations of government-backed surveillance. The Canadian role in global surveillance activities and the government’s decision to revive lawful access legislation represent the most disturbing aspects of online policies that must be addressed for digital rights leadership.

As the government finally embarks on its digital strategy, it has an opportunity to do more than just tout recent policy initiatives. Instead, it should consider linking its goals with the broader global initiatives to help create the Web we want.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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