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Opinion: Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Online Magna Carta | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee delivers a speech at the Bilbao Web Summit in the Palacio Euskalduna, on May 17, 2011. (Reuters/Vincent West)

In addition to the sheer magnitude of the tragedy and the sorrow at the fate of the passengers of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, a significant part of what has puzzled the world regarding this mystery for over a week now is that no one can believe that in this day and age when radars, satellites and cameras are observing almost everything around the clock, a plane of this size can disappear along with its passengers a short while after taking off. It is unbelievable that—according to the information announced—the plane continued flying in an unknown direction without anyone being able to know, or even guess, what had happened.

In the past, many tragedies and catastrophes occurred without anyone knowing the reasons for them or the fate of the victims. However, in today’s world “the right to know” has become a given, and is taken for granted—on the view that the explanations and reasons for such tragedies enable societies to observe precaution against them in the future. This is not to mention that human curiosity is now more acute than ever before.

The World Wide Web, or the Internet, which has just turned 25 years old, has played a massive role in bringing about a revolution in transmitting knowledge and information in a way unprecedented in human history. Thanks to this medium—invented by the British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee—multi-trillion-dollar businesses have flourished, and in less than a quarter of a century, a host of communications and business networks have become linked with this invention. In fact, the Internet has created a universe parallel to the real, material one which we feel and breathe.

But like anything else that develops over time becoming more complex, the Internet has seen some negative acts of exploitation appearing on the sidelines. As much as it has provided ample opportunities for knowledge, communications and international business operations, the Internet has also given criminal, terror and piracy networks more room to carry out their evils in a more widespread manner than before. Naturally, this has attracted the attention of law enforcement and crime agencies across the world to develop tools for monitoring the Internet, which is used by billions of people around the globe. But these agencies themselves have become vulnerable to infiltration from within, most notably in the cases of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Without the Internet—a medium through which one can transfer data with a mere click of a button—such releases of information would have needed a convoy of trucks—that is, if one managed to get hold of the information without anybody noticing in the first place. The leaked information has demonstrated something which everyone knew existed (though, perhaps, not on this scale): that everything is under surveillance. Sometimes, such surveillance operations can achieve the required balance between fighting crime on the one hand and protecting individual privacy on the other. This balance has a special significance, particularly since one’s use of the Internet depends on the confidence factor.

Perhaps the growing anxiety over this imbalance is what prompted Sir Tim Berners-Lee last week to call for an online Magna Carta to protect this medium and to preserve its openness and neutrality. The initiative is inspired by England’s Magna Carta, created in 1215 and described as the world’s first charter of political rights.

The negative phenomena accompanying the online violation of people’s private lives in recent years must have raised concerns for the inventor of the World Wide Web. However, the Internet as a phenomenon is still in a process of development and transformation. This is not to mention that its universality has made reaching a global agreement about policing it difficult in the light of the differences in policies and cultures—as well as taboos—in different countries. However, this should not prevent us from holding a universal dialogue about the way in which the world should manage the Internet so as to preserve the security of both individuals and societies.