57% of UK adults want a Digital Bill of Rights

News by Steve Gold

While there is now dissatisfaction with web security and calls, led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, for a Digital Bill of Rights in the UK, commentators do not believe it would be practical.

Research just published claims to show that 40 percent of adults in the UK have lost trust in the web over the last year - a situation that has been caused by a rising tide of government surveillance and privacy breaches.

The research - which was published over the weekend at the `Web We Want' Festival, a new three part festival co-organised by the World Wide Web Foundation and Southbank Centre in celebration of the web's 25th anniversary this year - also found that 57 percent of respondents think there should be a `Digital Bill of Rights' in the UK.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, said that a trusted Web is crucial to the UK's future.

"Our tech sector has led the way out of recession, creating more jobs than any other industry in recent years. A Britain in which people no longer trust the Web as a safe and private place will be a Britain that is less free, less creative and ultimately less prosperous," he said, adding that the 2015 General Election is an opportunity for party leaders to enact a new digital bill of rights."

Commenting on the research, which took in responses from more than 2,000 adults last month, Professor Peter Sommer of de Montfort University and a digital forensics specialist, said that, much as he likes the idea of a Digital Bill of Rights, he cannot see that it would ever get signed.

"Here in the UK I expect politicians to applaud the principles, while avoiding any opportunity to put it into practice - there are too many problems associated with law enforcement and intelligence agency powers. The explicit qualities of the Bill of Rights would be a hostage to fortune," he said.

"On an international basis there are many members of the United Nations such as Russia and China which simply have a different vision of the nation state and internet governance from those we have in the West. They want to see future Internet governance operating via nation-based entities such as the International Telecommunications Union," he added.

Kevin Bailey, Clearswift's head of market strategy, agreed with Professor Sommer's analysis. The problem, he explained, is that a Bill of Rights would take several years to create and agree with interested parties in the UK; there is also the issue of the European Union also enacting a parallel piece of legislation.

"The problem with these types of laws is that they can only ever just keep up with what is happening in the digital world. We've already seen what has happened with the EU digital privacy laws, which have taken many tears to reach fruition. Even if we started tomorrow, it would take several years to act a Digital Bill of Rights, by which time the Internet would have moved on significantly," he said.

Coupled with the fact that a European Digital Bill of Rights would have to span 28 nations, Bailey says the only real hope of success lies in adapting existing legislation to meet the needs of a Bill of Rights, rather than starting from scratch.

Thinking twice

Tim Keanini, Lancope's CTO, was more sanguine about getting a Bill of Rights into law, noting that trust is something both technical and social in nature.

"To trust something too much is bad and to not trust anything is also bad. A healthy level is distrust will do everyone a great deal of service, as people will think twice before downloading or clicking and answering questions they are asked over the web," he said.

"People say that security is a process and I would also say that trust is a process not a thing.  More specifically, it is a relationship between two objects that is dynamic and not static. Socially, trust is also being exploited where technology and techniques in reliably proving that the messages are authentic becomes more and more important - trusting these blindly is exactly what the attacker would prefer you do in most of their attacks," he added.

Simon Crosby, CTO and co-founder of Bromium, was more sceptical about the potential for a Digital Bill of Rights, noting that, whilst it is useful to establish expectations of privacy - and to encourage trustworthy web sites to embrace these - attempting to legislate trust is a fool's errand.   

"The web spans the globe  and the idea of enforcing a bill of rights on a foreign site is not practical.  And even a site with good intentions can be compromised by malware that attacks trusting visitors," he explained.

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