A Magna Carta for the Internet?

21 March 2014


The Internet is a unique public global good. It enables unprecedented numbers of people to share information and ideas, exercise democratic control over governing institutions and participate in the production of economic, social and cultural value. A large part of human activity today is enhanced by, and sometimes only possible through, the Internet.

The Internet’s resilience owes to its distributed nature and management by multiple actors throughout the globe in a collaborative manner. Its creative power stems from the openness it offers to everyone to experiment and try new ideas. Its growth in usage is based on users’ trust that Internet will deliver public service value with minimal risks. 

Concerns about mass surveillance, increased censorship and the emergence of dominant industry players capable of shaping the rules of use for millions and even billions of people have undermined trust in the Internet.

Mass surveillance has triggered discussions on new ways to guarantee privacy, freedom of expression, free flows of information on the Internet and what action needs to be taken at an international level. Recently, the media reported about a proposal by German Chancellor Merkel regarding the creation of a European network in order to ensure data protection. The idea of enhancing independent Internet connections with other countries has been proposed by the Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff. The EU-Brazil Summit in February 2014 covered among others topics such as investment in ICT infrastructures (fibre-optic submarine cable linking EU and Brazil) and referred to the creation of EU-Brazil Dialogue on International Cyber-Policy to address issues of the right to freedom of expression and privacy.

Naturally, discussions have extended to fundamental questions with regard to the roles of key state and non-state players in the way Internet is run and have triggered different initiatives to examine the present models of governance of the Internet. Brazil is organising the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paulo 23-24 April 2014 (NetMundial) to discuss Internet governance principles. Strategic thinking on legitimacy in the governance of the Internet, protection of human rights, norms on state conduct and cybercrime cooperation is also taking place at the Global Commission on Internet Governance chaired by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Mr Carl Bildt.

The Council of Europe is playing an active role in these developments. The Secretary General of our Organisation participates in the ICANN’s High Level Panel on the Future of Global International Cooperation. Recently, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called for the launching without delay of a Council of Europe White Paper on “Democracy, politics and the Internet”, to serve as a major Council of Europe contribution to the global reflection on Internet governance. The Council of Europe recently submitted its contribution to NetMundial which focuses on our Internet governance principles endorsed by the Committee of Ministers.

Some days ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the key figures in the development of the Internet, said that in order to address surveillance we need a set of values, “something like a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web”.

Time has indeed come to consider how to effectively guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms in Internet governance as well as universal accessibility, security, transparency and openness. The multi-stakeholder dialogue which took place over the last decade has greatly contributed to enhancing knowledge and shaping common positions on how to build consensus on this goal. The proposed “Magna Carta” could be an international agreement, possibly a framework Convention, and would be a major step to protect the abovementioned values, just as international legal instruments have proven indispensable to protect human rights and freedoms in general.

The aim of such a Convention would not be to enable individual states to regulate or control the Internet, but to codify a collective set of standards, based on existing best practice, and agreed through a multi-stakeholder dialogue. As in human rights Law, by committing to such a Convention, governments would provide a collective system of guarantees, and accept to be held to account.

The Council of Europe would offer an appropriate framework to facilitate a more thorough discussion on this. In recent years, the Council of Europe has carried out its continent-wide mandate to protect and enhance human rights, democracy and the rule of law also as regards the Internet. Our 47 member states have developed a series of Conventions, open to all states, to protect people against cybercrime, combat the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, fight counterfeit medicine, as well as the protection of personal data. We have also developed a range of political principles, policy standards, practical tools and opportunities for multi-stakeholder co-operation, which are helping governments, the private sector and civil society to protect and respect and uphold the values of our Organisation. A comprehensive guide to human rights for Internet users is scheduled for adoption in April.

The Council of Europe has been an active participant in the Internet governance processes since the first World Summit on Information Society in 2003. Its position has always been based on the need to secure the full implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and on the principle of “doing no harm” to the Internet’s functioning. The Council of Europe has repeatedly affirmed its support for the multistakeholder dialogue as a guiding principle for internet governance.