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Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the Internet as we know it, has urged users to fight for an “online Magna Carta” that would prevent governments and corporations from obstructing a free and open Web. The call to action was made in support of the Web We Want, also calling for an online bill of rights on the 25th anniversary of the filing of Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web.

The plea comes during a tempestuous time. Over the past year we have learned that intelligence agencies are surveilling millions of people through their online activities; that companies are gathering much of the same information to preserve advertising revenues; and that various groups of hackers have compromised vast numbers of credit cards and consumer records.

The reactions to those revelations have threatened the open Web. Brazil has announced plans to reroute Internet traffic so its citizens’ information won’t be managed by US companies. Internet users are afraid to rely on compromised services that might allow their video chats, emails, and messages to be monitored by the government. And the increased usage of isolated mobile apps that offer almost complete control of a consumer’s online activities to a handful of companies might just “kill the Internet as we know it.

The idea of a free Web where everyone can communicate without fear is starting to fade away. It is being replaced with a Web where countless intelligence agencies take advantage of the exploitation of private companies to create a digital panopticon from which few will leave. An online bill of rights might not deter such surveillance — laws have not stopped intelligence agencies in the past — but it could be a first step towards realizing the Web for which Berners-Lee has fought since he filed his first proposal all those years ago.

But, then again, it might also be a symbolic gesture destined to give excited Web users hope while governments and businesses ignore its edicts like they ignore other principles and laws. A bill of rights for the Web is as theoretically appealing as the open Web itself — and, like the Web, the reality will probably differ from the principles it’s meant to represent.

Berners-Lee around the Web:

He explains the issue to the Guardian:

Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.

He writes about his concerns on the official Google blog:

Today is a day to celebrate. But it’s also an occasion to think, discuss—and do. Key decisions on the governance and future of the Internet are looming, and it’s vital for all of us to speak up for the web’s future. […] Will we allow others to package and restrict our online experience, or will we protect the magic of the open web and the power it gives us to say, discover, and create anything? How can we build systems of checks and balances to hold the groups that can spy on the net accountable to the public?

He describes to CNET how the US and UK could better steward the Web:

The challenge for the USA is to put in place some agency, some court which has a lot more power than the FISA court [which currently oversees some data-gathering activities] — a lot more teeth and a lot more respect. You need to do something to say we are really serious about being trustworthy about personal and corporate data. Both the UK and the US need to make it very clear why they can be trusted in the future if people are going to store their data there.

He tells the BBC that Web users have a choice ahead of them:

It’s time for us to make a big communal decision. In front of us are two roads – which way are we going to go? Are we going to continue on the road and just allow the governments to do more and more and more control – more and more surveillance? Or are we going to set up a bunch of values? Are we going to set up something like a Magna Carta for the world wide web and say, actually, now it’s so important, so much part of our lives, that it becomes on a level with human rights?

Reactions from around the Web:

Google chairman Eric Schmidt and director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen write about the dangers of censorship and surveillance — and how Internet users might overcome them — in the New York Times:

None of these challenges are new. What is new is the possibility to overcome them — if we make the right public and private investments. For example, software using peer-to-peer algorithms lets users route an Internet connection through another computer without having to go through a V.P.N., helping to address the trust and scalability issues.

These algorithms don’t resolve the trust issue completely. How do you know you’re actually connecting to your friend, not a government agent? Ten years ago, this challenge would have been a deal breaker for many people. But today it’s possible to use networks like Facebook or Google Hangouts to verify one another’s identities similarly to how we do offline.

Gigaom notes that there is no global government that can introduce an all-reaching online bill of rights:

Of course, there is no global government to apply a digital “bill of rights” in a uniform way. Nonetheless, Berners-Lee and the Foundation carry a lot of weight, and these issues are increasingly on the minds of policy-makers around the world — it surely cannot hurt to have a global brainstorm, and now’s as good a time as any.

The New York Times reports that Berners-Lee didn’t expect the Web to become so overwhelmingly popular (and that Nick Bilton doesn’t know how to pronounce GIF):

‘I spent a lot of time trying to make sure people could put anything on the web, that it was universal,’he said in an interview. ‘Obviously, I had no idea that people would put literally everything on it.’

Since then, ‘everything’ has included the GIF, (pronounced ‘jif,’ like the brand of peanut butter, rather than with a hard G sound), memes, Google, Facebook, Twitter, news sites, Pets.com, YouTube and billions of web pages, by some estimates.

[Image courtesy Silvio Tanaka]