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.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that 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.


  1. pat donovan says:

    let them hire flakes?
    man, i don’t wanna see who writes that statement of user rights for the www. (the one that gets passed.)

    have you SEEN what the help ‘they’ hires turns out? Loyality seems to be good at taking money and not much else.

    bribes, that is. the copyright foundation will get a ‘no-class-actions’ six months statuee of limitations, and get out of jail free card.


  2. Maybe but …
    CSEC and the fact that we don’t appear to have any political party particularly interested in privacy and reigning in the spooks or evening giving too much push back to the **AA means it would be a lie.

  3. David Collier-Brown says:

    We write it, guys.
    The barons wrote the Magna Carta, not Prince John! He had about as much willingness to guarantee rights as the NSA has to provide privacy to the people investigating it.

  4. Trust Issues?
    The current government can’t be trusted to protect our rights. Digitally or otherwise.

  5. Trust Issues

    As David has pointed out above, the solution isn’t one we trust the government to honour. We can only force them to do so, at gunpoint if necessary.

    So I imagine, for example, that it may include arranging many Internet exchange points in an all-inclusive TOR network and hosting them at Universities under the protection of an interdisciplinary team.

    It might also include recruiting librarians to host TOR network exit nodes at every public library, also under their protection. (Librarians have squared off against the US government over the Patriot Act, defending free speech before, so they can be trusted.)

    It might also include an association of domain name providers who will no longer tolerate so-called domain name “seizures”, (perhaps the most corrupt practice of all.)

    Freedom must be defended at the packet, network, application and content levels.
    And yes, Gary, they must be defended from any government. With bloodshed if necessary.

  6. One issue that should be raised as a user right is standard licensing terms. Most of us read through an online licence, because we wouldn’t understand it if we did. We just tick and move on. Many of the terms would be reasonable and straightforward, but it would prevent small variations with far reaching consequences. It should also clarify that in the event of a dispute private users be able to have the dispute settled under local laws.

  7. The tools need to change
    Regardless of whatever Internet Bill of Rights gets adopted, it simply isn’t going to matter unless the technology defaults or requires following those rules.

    The current internet has worn out its usefulness. I don’t mean IPv4 versus IPv6 (my ISP still hasn’t upgraded). I mean the whole infrastructure, from the application layer straight down to the physical layer (and the five middle layers along the way).

    Today’s internet needs to embrace an ad-hoc peer-to-peer mesh model, while also defaulting to the strongest encryption at each node. It also needs to store content differently, such that even the creator or owner of the content cannot take it down, immunizing them from threats. There are many hurdles to be overcome, of course, but this is preferable to simply adopting a set of rules which will be ignored.

  8. Carmichael says:

    The idea that this government might be a world leader in anything other than single digit IQs is both laughable and tragic and is unworthy of you Michael Geist.

  9. @Annie O’
    No need for bloodshed, we just need our lazy youth to get off their behinds and vote. That scares the crap of most politians because the youth are part of a global uprising right now regarding civil rights. It’s happened in Egypt, Iran, all over the EU, its starting in the US. Hasn’t hit us “yet”.

    Once our youth decide to turn up at the polls, is when their priorites become governments. Right now its all about the Boomers. We need a generational shift in policy that can only come when the vast majority of our population that’s under 30, VOTE!

  10. David Collier-Brown says:

    We’ve actually done this before
    However, none of us were alive during the development of the Haneseatic League, no we’ve mostly forgotten the problem and how we solved it.

    To brutally oversimplify, merchants in the Baltic (and London) convinced their very conservative, aristocratic governments that their trading networks needed to be self-governing and have protection from crooks enforced by the local princes’ courts. This lead to the development of what we now call “commercial law”, specifically including the statute of frauds, which is pretty-much universal these days. It was our first essay into international law, and arguably one of our most successful ones.

    Today, we could have and “Internet League”, of countries that have laws and rights that we have identified, and where we can be sure that a crook can’t sue and prevent us from calling him a crook.

  11. ….Could Canada Lead….
    Hahahaha! Good one Professor!

  12. @David Collier-Brown
    The problem is that “suing” (or not) is part of a system which exists in a different realm. TCP/IP doesn’t work like that. I’m not sure why politicians and most of the public is not seeing this, but perhaps it’s because they live in a dimension which seems to make that invisible to them.

    As Jason K suggests above, perhaps we need our youth to show up at the polls. We do have the Pirate Party of Canada who have some internet awareness (though a little thin on other points), and they seem to be ignored by anybody posting here. Actually, I’m not sure that, apart from a few, the younger set is really aware of how the internet works anyway. I continue to be hopeful, but still worry that Tim Wu was right that the internet will be co-opted by corporate interests and that we the people will loose it, like we did with newspapers, radio, and TV. This, because we are adamantly refusing to take control of the technology ourselves. Remember, that the internet is not public, but an interconnection of peering arrangements between private networks.

  13. Open media says:

    Declaration of Internet Freedom

  14. @Annie O’ + Ole Juul
    Simply signing a declaration of Internet magna carta is good in principle, however won’t achieve much in our political environment. Those who are under 30, grew up with the internet. They need to vote to change the political debate. Nic Nanos recently did a study on how the youth vote would have changed the political debate in the last election.

    Nanos’s stated: “analysis also suggests older Canadians “are very cynical, they have less confidence in finding solutions” whereas younger people “are actually much more hopeful, have a higher level of confidence in finding solutions.”

    That’s the problem right there. Nano’s also stated that had the youth turned up and voted last election, the Conservatives wouldn’t have won a majority. Probably the reason why the Conservatives are trying to suppress the Youth vote through changes in ID requirements. They also threw the Youth out of political campaign speeches last election, and started “creeping” youths profiles that showed up at these events.

    The Conservatives are petrified of the youth vote. So are most political parties, because if they do turn up to vote, the political policies and direction of the country will change dramatically. It’s going to happen at some point. Under 30 is the biggest section of our population. The longer it takes for these people to understand how important their vote is, the more damage is going to be done to their future as a result.

  15. Good post Jason K. I specifically like your insight that the Conservatives, indeed all the parties, are petrified of the youth vote.

    Although I’m an old guy, I am constantly advocating for network communications to be talked about. One thing I notice is that whenever I bring up the internet at political meetings, or with political party folks, I get a blank stare. I could just as well talk about gay rights for plankton. They simply don’t understand anything about this new world. I find that despicable, but now you give me some idea why they might be like that.

    My thought is that even though a lot of young people don’t necessarily understand the real issues with the internet and modern communications, they have indeed grown up with it, and if you raise issues for them, they will become interested and involved. Is it possible that simply studying up and addressing issues that would interest younger people would get them out to vote? The problem is that politicians tend to be uneducated in simple matters of internet technology and seem to believe that only hackers use text editors and web servers. It is difficult to overcome that kind of self deprecating culture.

    Digital rights is the subject of this thread, but other issues that concern younger people could be addressed by political parties also. I think the real problem with getting any youth vote is that the contemporary political thought is irrelevant to them. Left, right? Those dimensions are so far out of date that anybody under thirty cant even see them with binoculars.

  16. @Ole Juul
    I don’t think young people don’t understand digital issues. Growing up with the Internet pushed Ed Snowden to stand up for those issues. Then there was SOPA/PIPA in the US which was covered by a lot of those involved in the video game industry, and of course ACTA in the EU.

    EU politicians got a very good education around digital rights issues from the ACTA protests that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Listening to EU politicians speak on digital issues is a real treat. US politicians are currently getting their education on issues of spying, and SOPA/PIPA (to some degree).

    In Canada our experience has been a bit different especially with social media. It’s brought about a lot of accountability into our system around things like copyright, lawful access, telecom policy.

    I’ve spoken with several Canadian politicians regarding digital issues, from municipal to provincial to federal. All seem in fear of the accountability aspects of what the internet has provided, and such things like lawful access for instance, are more to ensure that those who provide accountability to the political system such as whistle blowers are eliminated.

    I saw a response given to a victims rights group on C-13 by an anonymous high ranking conservative, when this group was questioning lawful access provisions in the new cyber bullying legislation. Simply put the main selling point to these groups for some reason has been “to stop other Edward Snowdens” rather than actually help with putting forth victim rights. I found that quite telling as did many others in the victim’s rights aspects. The fact that this comment came in anonymously also made me laugh.

    The problem that we have I will agree with you is education around digital issues towards are politicians who seem to have picked a fight with digital rights because the internet is making them more accountable to the people they serve. The broader issue the encompasses everything else regarding digital rights is political accountability, and embracing the use of the digital world to enable that.

    It’s very hard to bring in a bill of digital rights, when the vast majority of our political leaders are hiding from and will do anything to avoid being held accountable to the people that elected them. This is also representative in almost all political parties, across all political spectrums, with the conservatives having the most to loose.

    It’s the political culture that needs to change, to embrace accountability and technology. I don’t think that will or can happen unless there’s a generational shift in politics. Digital advocacy as a result will have less of an impact over the next several years until that generational shift takes place, and those under 30 show up at the polls.

    To conclude, I don’t think it’s the younger more tech savvy youth have to be educated around digital rights issues, it’s political ideology and the quest to become less accountable to the public by our political leaders that seems to be holding a lot of this back from my conversations with those elected representatives.

  17. @Ole Juul
    Essentially what I’m trying to say here is it’s going to take one of two things in order to change our political system to embrace the accountability aspects of the net to bring in a digital bill of rights:

    1) A physical presence by the youth at the polls regarding the issue of political accountability (a huge issue with that is Canadians are complacent with the issues in our political system right now. A fact not gone unnoticed by all politicians)

    2) An outside body such as the EU who have had a physical presence regarding digital rights an accountability on issues like ACTA to force that change with an economic threat behind them (more likely to happen as a result of the NSA disclosures)

  18. Sorry, just my opinion
    Canadians aren’t complacent. They will turn up at polls for a new party against surveillance. Just as they are turning up in the marketplace looking for privacy. No one can stop them now.

  19. MillionGamer says:

    I’m for this law
    It will be awesome if this law passed 🙂

  20. @Anonymous
    They are complacent with respect to the political system, especially the youth. Youth are taking to forms of digital advocacy rather than actually turning up to the polls when it counts. Some times especially through my experience that digital advocacy is twisted by a few organizations (openmedia to name one), to benefit the bottom line of corporations, especially with respect to telecom policy. A lot of the indie providers have been twisting and cloaking themselves in the term “pro internet community” to pad their pockets and avoid accountability. As a result, those organizations who continue to do this, deplete that digital grass roots voice and nothing gets changed as a result (example is the UBB issue that openmedia raised)

    It’s essentially organizations such as this where the youth is engaging and thinking they are actually making a difference with the smoke and mirrors put up in front of corporate interest, that’s causing a lot of problems politically to get the right political policy in place. There’s going to be a lot of talk about this type of advocacy tomorrow at the U of O with Nano’s and friends. Those wanting to make a difference digitally and on a whole swath of other political issues, need to move it forward into the real world system, and not rely on organizations such as openmedia to do it for them with a few clicks of the mouse in which the message that for the most part is lost due to bulk e-mailing.

    Those that want change have to show up at political campaign events and advocate in real world politics. Nano’s, and quite a few others are trying to get the politicians to engage on policy not tied to current retiree’s. There will be interesting political discussions on this over the next week. Stay tuned to media on that. Hopefully some of those discussions will result in digital rights issues if the leaders are taking the time to put forth leadership on these issues.

  21. @Anonymous
    Nano’s put it quite bluntly on Power and Politics today with respect to the youth vote, and with respect to the youth engaging in digital advocacy to basically “man up” and move it towards our political system.

    Those that care about digital rights, need to be prepared to march for those, show up at your political representatives offices, show up at campaign speeches, and most importantly vote.

    The EU denied ACTA because there was million’s of people that marched against it in EU member nations (which gave EU politicians a stern education on digital issues). Same thing with SOPA/PIPA. Arron Swartz lead the marches on this well before the day of action on that.

  22. @ Jason K
    I’m reasonably youngish. I’m not voting federally or provincially again. I don’t think democracy has shown itself to be a useful or effective method of selecting adequate leadership. Relying on a 17th C model seems naive at best. Claiming there is a difference between online and “flesh” world is increasingly a mistaken method of viewing society.

  23. Isn’t modernizing democracy what we are essentially speaking about here with respect to “digital rights”? In democratic societies, you have to change the system within. The first step in that process comes from your civil duty to vote. You don’t vote, you get the government you deserve.

    “Claiming there is a difference between online and “flesh” world is increasingly a mistaken method of viewing society.”

    Not necessarily. You can’t hold someone in the physical world politically accountable through digital advocacy the same way you can when you turn up and vote. The social accountability within the democratic system is set up through voting, and through real world grass roots organization and advocacy. This is how our system of democracy works.

    The problem with the current leadership of most parties is that they tend to focus on policy towards those that actually turn up to vote, meaning 50+. The youngish generation far outweighs in numbers then the boomers do. Essentially in order for these political leaders too provide much more policy geared towards your generation and mine too to some extent as a Gen X myself, you have to turn up and vote in numbers and become politically active. You have to give them an excuse to care, because the more your generation doesn’t turn up to vote, regardless of the reasons, the less likely political policy such as digital rights, environmental, education policies will be put in place.

  24. As we’ve witnessed with SOPA/PIPA and the EU ACTA examples, digital advocacy is can only be used as a tool for real world organization. That has to be backed up by real world democratic accountability through voting and getting in the face of our politicans in the real world to make a deceive difference. You guys are going to have to take the time to organize in the real world before we can realistically talk about thongs like digital rights. All open media, myself, Michael and other bloggers can do is keep you informed. Its up to you guys to translate that to a real physical presence with our current democratic system, and simply sending canned and copy pasted emails to your representatives is not producing the policy change needed to forward digital issues.

  25. @ Jason K
    While I sit on the “left” in a lot of ways I don’t see government as a solution. The problem is the state is a structure of control and regulation. When was the last time the CanGov gave people more rights vs. past more laws to restrict people doing things that prior to that were legal? The danger the last twenty plus years have shown is when once government was believed to provide a counter weight to corporate power (and under the belief built up and strengthened) and the vested interests there in, what has been shown to be more the truth is government is agnostic as to in who’s interests it acts and ultimately therefore becomes inseparable from corporate power.

    As we have seen with many recent decisions, often the increase of corporate power comes through government actions. Big banks wouldn’t have survived without big government, big telcos need big gov to block competition, big oil needs subsidies only big gov can provide. So it is the presence of government that allows for the growth of control, not the absence of government.

    To vote legitimizes this process.

    In response to your question regarding social accountability, note the word social. Try searching Santorum to see what digital advocacy can do to someones career. I don’t think it is coincidental that Vic Taves retires after the storm he cause leading to #tellviceverything.

    As a younger person, I’ve voted in many elections and never seen my preferred result succeed. In my experience, I get the government and social controls that my elders want. Where do you get the idea about the larger younger generation? Pollsters and elections Canada constantly float the “emerging youth vote” as a scare tactic trigger a rush to the polls by older people. As has been pointed out recently in a BBC Analysis podcast it will take till somewhere in 2020’s before young people have enough electoral clout to push out baby boomers from being the deciding factor in elections.

  26. meat space
    The other lesson that the recent events have provided is action in the physical space doesn’t seem to cause any change what so ever. G20 protests, idle no more, occupy, anti-Iraq marches (esp. in UK), Air Canada strikes, missing women marches, etc. All of these meat space actions had a good deal of support, large numbers for turn out, were, for the most part legal and can we guess the result? So if the physical is so effective why has it been so ineffective?

  27. Anonymous - and feeling guilty for it, too:) says:

    said said:
    “As a younger person, I’ve voted in many elections and never seen my preferred result succeed.”

    Nanos’ research shows that this time could be different. Times are different, I’d say.

  28. @said: I think I agree with pretty much everything you said. I’m on OAP, but I don’t see what you’re talking about as being much different from what I and my friends were saying 40 years ago. My long dead dad would probably agree when talking about 80 years ago.

    That said, I do note that you use the word “meatspace” to refer to politics. If you were talking physical world, as in guns, you’d be dead wrong. Guns change things. They’re the bottom line, and much of the world is ruled by their use. Even Canada has an army which is the bottom line as far as enforcing government control is concerned. Actually, in the last couple of decades, Police, which was supposed to uphold the peace, have changed their practice to military style, and think of themselves as the bottom line instead.

    In any case, I think one of the reasons that you (actually we) have not seen your preferred result is the lack of parties to vote for and the broken system of having majority governments. We need 30 parties. As for the left-right thing. That’s been deprecated for many years. As an old leftie, I don’t have any party to vote for. None of them have any interest in modern day communication, nor understand the importance of people talking to each other around the world.

    @guilty anon: I see that Kim Dotcom’s is promoting his new party as being for those that haven’t voted before. He may indeed grab some of those votes. I remember that the Pirate Party in Germany was the highest in the poles there for a while – thought I don’t think that was all younger folk. We’ll see. Perhaps things will be different.

  29. @said
    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I’d probably be the first to agree with you regarding the influences on the system by private industry. It’s not just big telecom causing problems with respect to digital policy, it’s also the indie providers medaling around as well trying to control the message on what it means to be “pro internet” with smoke and mirrors around their real agenda which is their bottom line. Don’t be fooled by the telecom wars.

    That being said, I have to remain optimistic coming from an investigative journalism background. Democratic societies have a history of going through social revolutions that evens put the playing field in our system of government. This has been happening all over the world with the younger generation recently. In all of these cases including the US, social media was used as a tool to organize.

    You didn’t see the president of Egypt leave in 2011 because twitter got mad at him. You didn’t see the Ukrainian president ousted because his Facebook page was trolled. Vic Towed is a judge now I believe in federal court. So much for twitter destroying his reputation on decision making.

    The SOPA/PIPA protests were backed by real world marching, and people calling into their political reps. Same thing is happening in the US, but no not in Canada because organizations like “open media” who get corporate donations want to make you think you’re making a difference through their website, and they’ll handle it, thus removing the political threat of accountability when real bodies show up and actually do real world stuff outside of the house and get involved. Could be intentional?

    Truth is there are very real world and very recent examples of how a system for democracy works. Its a strong force to be reakoned with once people get organized in the real world. There are people right now in Iran, Syria, Egypt fighting and dying for the chance to march against government and have their say. That’s embedded in our constitution which people caught and died to protect. Use the tools we have in our system of government properly and you’ll see just how powerful even one real world voice can become. Don’t, and you’ll be doing this country a disservice and falling right into the hands of private industry and current leadership. The choice is yours to make. Be thankful you have that choice.

  30. @said
    Just also to touch up on the Vic Towes stuff again, are we still not talking about lawful access on this blog? With respect to the younger generation not voting until 2020, that analysis is built on the fact that traditionally those under 30 do not vote. The vast majority of Gen Y will be over 30 by 2020. Why even listen to reports like this meant to keep you guys away from the polling stations so the boomers can have a few more years of power. By then there will be no turning back on environmental problems, digital rights will be a thing if the past. We’ll all be working until we’re 80. There will be no CPP you will get when you retire. Corporations will own our soul and sell it to the highest bidder. The time to change all of that has to be the next election. Its going to be extremely difficult for all of us by 2020 if Gen Y doesn’t turn up to vote.