Web inventor calls for Internet Bill of Rights

News by Steve Gold

"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?" - Sir Tim Berners-Lee

It's been almost ten months since Edward Snowden, a former CIA and NSA contractor started releasing classified files on how governments on both sides of the Atlantic are surveilling Internet users. And now, on the 25th anniversary of the graphical Internet we now call the World Wide Web, the `inventor' of the web has called for an Internet Bill of Rights.

Berners-Lee is the computer scientist who conceived and implemented an information management system called HTTP - the Hypertext Transfer Protocol - in a client-server configuration back in 1989.

Berners-Lee - who has been involved in the Internet since 1980, when CERN was working on the development of the TCP/IP standard - has been watching the unfolding revelations from Snowden with understandable, and publicly-voiced, concern.

He chose today, the 25th anniversary of when the first Mosaic browser client was released, to call for a `Magna Carta' Internet Bill of Rights to protect users.

Interviewed on BBC TV Breakfast Show today, he drew parallels between his proposed Bill and compared this to similar legislation surrounding human rights. As with human rights, he says the best course of action is for Internet users to take action and protest against surveillance by state entities.

"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?," he told the programme,

Since Snowden started releasing his files in May last year, Berners-Lee has said that state surveillance threatens the democratic nature of the Web, although he has spoken out in defence of Snowden himself, noting his actions have been in the public interest - something he reiterated during Snowden's talk at SXSW this week.

Industry reaction to Berners-Lee's call to Internet arms has been positive. Professor Peter Sommer - a fellow Internet veteran of the 1980s and visiting professor at de Montfort University, told SCMagazineUK.com that security on the Internet is not just about protecting users against terrorism and paedophiles - as some elements of the media have suggested - but more about protecting one's own Internet presence.

"It's actually about defending your own space on the net. Several people have called for something similar to what Sir Tim has asked for, but perhaps the industry - and government - will this time listen to the web's founder," he said.

Fellow veteran Peter Wood, CEO of First Base Technologies, a pen testing specialist, said that, whilst the actions of Snowden against the establishment in the US are valid, it is important to understand that UK surveillance of the Internet is - by and large - within its legal remit,

"We have been very fortunate in the UK that, whilst the US has clearly overstepped the mark, the UK government has been pragmatic in its approach," he said, adding that, despite this – and because of the global nature of the Internet - there is a clear need for an international agreement on the rights of Internet users.

Steve Smith, managing director of security consultancy Pentura, said Sir Tim Berners-Lee is right to raise this issue.

"However, in practice, the only way that organisations can keep their data and IP is safe from all types of prying and surveillance - whether from criminals or governments - is to audit what information is critical, and apply appropriate protection to it so it's safeguarded at rest and in transit.  The Web can't be trusted, so companies and individuals have to put their own protection measures in place," he said.

Clive Longbottom, founder and senior analyst with Quocirca, was equally cautious, saying, at a theoretical level, he agrees with Sir Tim.

"However, at a practical level, a Bill of Rights does not tackle the issue of the darker side of the Internet. You are also not going to get commercial monitoring groups to sign up to a Bill of Rights. Neither are you going to get the really bad Black Hats either," he said.

"And what about the likes of Anonymous and Lulzsec? These are monitoring things happening and watching over peoples' shoulders - would they be launch signatories to such a Charter? I doubt it," he added.

The problem, says Longbottom, is that the Internet genie is now well and truly out of the bottle, as large numbers of people are on the Web, with the result that it is being used for a great many things, not all of which are for the greater good. As a result, he adds, surveillance is going to be a challenging issue.


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