Is It Time for an Internet Bill of Rights?

internet bill of rights, United States Constitution

If military officials are technically in my computer, aren’t they in my home without my consent? And more questions that deserve answers.

When our founding fathers set out to ratify the U.S. Constitution, many were concerned about the amount of power being granted to the government over the individual. They expressly feared the threat to freedom and prosperity that a strong centralized power could become. And so, to address these concerns and ultimately prevent the government — or any entity — from becoming too powerful, the Bill of Rights was created. Proposed by James Madison, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution were intended to protect human beings from the tyrannical rule of an all-powerful central authority. These rights were ratified in 1791, but the ideas behind them go as far back as the Magna Carta in 1215.

Basically, by being born human, you have a right to your own life, a right to liberty, and a right to keep property. This was the argument of British philosopher John Locke, who inspired the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. He also believed these inalienable rights should not be infringed upon by anyone — even governments, lords and kings. Why? Because these rights are not given to you by these entities, nor can they be issued on a piece of paper. You have the right not to be murdered, enslaved or robbed by anyone else, because you are a human being.

This is why, in the Bill of Rights, American citizens are granted, among other things, the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, a right to assemble and petition, a right to a fair trial and due process, a right to bear arms, and the right to not quarter (house) any soldier in your home. These specific rights were chosen for a reason, as many of America’s early citizens had already experienced the cruelties of censorship and servitude. As a result, they fought — and died — for individual sovereignty. They desired to be “owned” by no one but themselves, with the right to control their own lives and bodies as they wished.

Fast-forward to March 15, 1962. John F. Kennedy issues a “Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest.” In it, he argues that the federal government is the highest spokesman for the people, and that it has a special obligation to be aware of the needs of consumers and to advance their interests. He then highlights four specific rights of the consumer:

1. The right to safety: to be protected against the marketing of goods which are hazardous to health or life.
2. The right to be informed: to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling or other practices, and to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice.
3. The right to choose: to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices; and in those industries in which competition is not workable and government regulation is substituted, to be assured of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices.
4. The right to be heard: to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy, and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunals.

Kennedy goes on to say, “The march of technology — affecting, for example, the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the many appliances we use in our homes — has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with his opportunities; and it has outmoded many of the old laws and regulations and made new legislation necessary.”

He then highlights the following:

1. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) must fight against deceptive trade practices and false advertising, while preventing monopolies and ensuring effective competition.
2. There should be “truth in packaging,” as misleading, fraudulent and unhelpful practices are incompatible with the efficient and equitable functioning of a free competitive economy.
3. All of us are consumers, so by acting in the interest of the consumer, we are acting in the interest of us all.

So is it time for an Internet Bill of Rights to be written? A lot has happened since 1962, and a whole lot more since 1215. Our relationships with our governments and leaders have changed drastically, as have our connections to each other. And halting progress to think about it is not an option.

internet bill of rights, United States Constitution

Getty Images

On the one hand, our internet must remain open and free, especially if we’re to capture its full economic potential. On the other hand, an open and free internet is not safe, forcing users to take on greater personal responsibility for their privacy and protection from bad actors. This could serve as a catalyst for strengthening individual sovereignty, and for internet users to recognize their own value and lay claim to their ownership of themselves.

One thing standing in the way, however, is surveillance capitalism, in which a user of a free service, like certain social media platforms and search engines, becomes a product for consumption — their data, that is. While this is a business model employed by the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, only recently have users become aware of the scope of data harvested from their actions. Some may turn to government intervention; yet if an Internet Bill of Rights doesn’t come to pass (the idea has failed before), it would require a market shift in order to achieve a similar result.

For example, users could choose to ultimately vote for opposing business models — namely, those that refuse to harvest or sell user data. This could mean switching from Facebook to Gab, or searching with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. These simple changes of behavior could go a long way in helping users regain their autonomy online, while also sending a clear message to the marketplace that certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated.

Of course, when I look at the digital landscape right now, I see that many of our rights as American citizens have either been disrespected or downright ignored. Perhaps this is due to the internet growing and expanding so rapidly, while traditional human institutions — especially those of government — tend to be slow and lethargic. But take freedom of speech, for example. Many major social media platforms currently engage in censoring, shadow banning, and expelling users with certain views or opinions (unrelated to hate speech and/or terrorism).

Or consider our inalienable right to liberty. If our data is constantly being compiled and sold to third parties, are we truly free? If these platforms are designed to catch us in a web of addiction, is freedom even the goal? What about in relation to artificial intelligence and machine learning? If we are not cognizant of their manipulation, does that mean we still make our decisions freely? I think not.

Or consider the third amendment: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” Now, I’m no lawyer, but how then can it be argued that it’s lawful for government intelligence agencies to spy on American citizens through their computers and cellphones? If military officials are technically in my computer, aren’t they in my home without my consent?

internet bill of rights, United States Constitution

Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department January 17, 2014, in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

Again, I’m just an average American citizen. I’m not a Constitutional law professor, or even an expert on the Bill of Rights — but based on what I know about how users, including myself, are ultimately being abused by certain companies and business models, I feel there must be some solution.

Perhaps We the People must merely reclaim our birthright and enforce our rights online and off. Maybe some genius lawyers should fill the shoes of Jefferson and Madison to lead us forward in terms of user rights and protections. Or maybe this is yet another tale of David and Goliath, and if the biggest companies won’t respect the Bill of Rights as ratified, then maybe some smaller, up-and-coming players will. It’s certainly an area of opportunity, especially as more internet users wise up to their lack of privacy and control. But something must change in order for us to move forward.

Because to be human is difficult enough without being manipulated by algorithms and machines. If we’re going to move forward, we need the freedom to think, debate, discuss and create. We need the freedom to say things that people might disagree with, or to make art that some people might hate. We need the freedom to make mistakes, to fail, to learn and to shed the past like an old, withered skin. And we need the FTC to be fully staffed with individuals willing to fight for consumers and digital users against a mighty foe. More importantly, we need them to enforce the laws as written.

internet bill of rights, U.S. Constitution

The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (of 27, one of which was repealed). These 10 comprise the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The internet is still young, but it’s time to put constraints on its titans to make way for a new age of leadership, technology and innovation. We must have creative progress, and that starts with shedding what no longer serves us in favor of business models and systems that will. If that means an Internet Bill of Rights, so be it. It’s time the digital world respected the realities of the physical one, especially when it comes to individual sovereignty. We’re not cogs in your machine; we’re human beings, and we have the right to say no.

So what’s next? Choose your platforms wisely. Protect your data the best you can. And if you think this is an issue that deserves our government’s attention, check out this petition. It ends on April 3, 2018. However, the hashtag #InternetBillofRights can keep this conversation going. This is only the beginning, and we’ve got a long way to go. end


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