On the 11th of November Gerald Darmanin, the French Minister of Public Action and Accounts, declared the set up of a contentious measure which came with the new law against tax evasion. An article from Les Numeriques reports that from January 2019 onward, a new system will enable tax offices to “spy” using social media in order to detect a gap between an individual’s revenue and their spending on hobbies. Simply put, if someone regularly posts about a sports car or other expenses which they cannot afford, tax offices will be able to open an investigation with that individual. This new system, like many others set up by public authorities make us question notions of freedom, democracy, or internet transparency. These interrogations go way beyond the French framework, more so now that in 2019 over 50% of the world’s population will be online.

Pleading for a “free, open, and secure” Internet

The World Wide Web Foundation launched by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the Internet’s inventors, aims to take action regarding the Internet’s evolution and proposes to renew its founding principles. Thus, on the 5th of November the foundation launched a campaign called #ForTheWeb to incite “governments, companies, and the public  to stand up for a free, open, and secure Internet which will benefit everyone.”  This campaign is based on a petition but equally relies on contributions from internet users who can speak of their relationship with the web via videos. It all questions the way in which, over the last 30 years, the Internet has revolutionised the way connected individuals see the world, communicate or rally together.

But the cornerstone of this campaign is to set up a “contract for the Web”, whose fundamental principles are available on the foundations website. The latter are divided in three aspects which remind governments, companies, and citizens of their responsibility and duty. First and foremost, governments are incited to guarantee three things: access to internet for all, maintaining an access to internet that is in line with internet integrality, and people’s fundamental rights to a private life.   

Companies, for their part, are invited to keep the internet accessible to all in its technical and financial capacity, to respect the private lives and personal data of users, and to develop technology which allows humanity to progress or (at worst) to regress. Finally, citizens or users are also given three tasks: to create and collaborate on the internet, to build communities which respect human dignity and civic discourse, and finally to fight so that the internet remains a free and open resource that is accessible to everyone. According to 01.Net Google, Facebook, and the French government were among the first to openly support this initiative.

A Superfluous Declaration?

The interest of such a contract would have universal dimensions, which is what Tim Berners-Lee kept coming back to during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Web Summit which took place in Lisbon. Indeed, this contract not only addresses governments and companies, but everyone. Nevertheless, it raises a question: do we need a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights? This question gave way to an extensive discussion during the Web Summit. Despite the fact that all the protagonists of that debate already supported the idea, in principle if nothing else, they recognised that it was necessarily needed. Brett Solomon, Executive Director of the AccessNow NGO, surmised the situation thus: “we don’t need a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights because we already have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it just needs to be applied to the digital environment.” According to him, for that to happen “the international system needs to evolve in order to recognise the emergence of new rights, but also to guarantee the application of existing rights to new environments.”

The challenge is thus twofold. The new rights which he speaks of are, for example, the right to anonymity and the right to oblivion. Those are indeed not addressed by the present Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as of now. And obviously, the first of these “new environments” is the digital environment. In this case, the challenge is in trying to convert the right to freedom of speech and opinion (article 19 of the UDHR) and the right to property (article 17) into digital rights.

Concretely, this requires that not only governments but also companies are trained to respect and promote human rights. This applies particularly for the giants of the net. Peggy Hicks, Director at the UN Human Rights Office, notes that the majority of regulations or frameworks in the digital world are made up by companies. Governments sometimes try to reaffirm their prerogative by regulating them, but remain minorities in companies’ processes of decision-making and framing regulations. According to her, the key is “to bring Human Rights to the center of that decision-making process.” It is exactly for this that citizens are gathering under the #ForTheWeb banner.

The Defenders of a Regulation

This answer does not necessarily agree with everyone. Some in fact, advocate the set-up of a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights, and not just a translation of the UDHR into the digital realm. One of the most compelling propositions is the Preliminary Declaration of the Digital Human Rights, a text published in 2014 by 113 artists, CEOs, athletes, politicians, and operators in culture, the creative industry, the economy and media, according to an article from Legavox. The eight articles that make up the text aim notably to guarantee the respect of private life, of dignity, and of freedom within a digital context. An article from Echos which presents this Forum D’Avignon initiative, cites Laure Kaltenbach, the Forum’s Executive Director, for who the challenge is “to protect personal data without preventing innovation and research.”

During the Web Summit 2018 debate, Adrian Lovett, the Director of the World Wide Web Foundation, has himself  brought up an intermediate idea. Without being favourable to the Forum D’Avignon idea of a Declaration of the Digital Human Rights, he nonetheless defended the idea of an international treaty to regulate the internet. At the start of the debate, he indeed explained that the “contract for the Web” was just the first step, and should later on become the basis for a restrictive online treaty. The aim is to set up a mechanism that allows everyone to be accountable for their own engagements in favor of an internet that is loyal to its founders’ ideals.

In short, the debate over whether or not we should set up a Universal Declaration of Digital Right asks if the UDHR is now redundant or, to cite Adrian Lovett, if it’s translation into “the reality of our digital lives” would allow it to regain its pertinence. Some people estimate that taking into account the challenges, as well as the empowerment of all the operators – government, companies, citizens – will allow us to give back to the internet the spirit that its founding fathers had nurtured. Others consider that we need to write a new text in order to protect citizens, notably from Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (GAFA) and from their own governments.

Author : Côme Allard de Grandmaison

Translator : Glenn Bastide