Yesterday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of London and I was lucky enough to go along as a blogger and social reporter. This was the first time the ceremony has been open to the media and broadcast online. The notion of using the Internet to report on a ceremony honouring the inventor of the World Wide Web seemed almost poetic to me (you can see mine and others’ Tweets from the event by searching the hashtag #worldwidethanks).
The Honorary Freedom of the City of London is the highest honour that the city can bestow upon an individual. It is an ancient custom, steeped in history and tradition, and is truly a fitting tribute to the man whose innovation has transformed the world as we know it. I felt really privileged to be able to witness it.
The pomp and flair of the ceremony with its Aldermen, dress robes and formal customs was at complete odds with the speech from the guest of honour which was about the future challenges of the digital space. This was a wonderful juxtaposition which Sir Tim seemed to enjoy very much, and used to its full rhetorical potential.
Sir Tim drew upon the proud history of London to reflect on the challenges being faced by the modern, networked world. He reminded us that hundreds of years ago the City was home to many coffee houses: places where the masses could gather, discuss and dissent freely and openly. Places where people could make business deals, meet new people and strive for new opportunities. There are obvious parallels, he said, between these hot-houses of social change and the World-Wide Web: the place where much communication and commerce now takes place.
The internet opens myriad opportunities for humankind and for the developed world the internet is already the default place where we learn, get news and network. We take for granted that we can access American Facebook, read German newspapers and follow Spanish football teams’ Twitter feeds. But how many of us consider that there are no global rules governing this global space?
Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and Sir Tim is now calling for a digital Magna Carta to protect the rights of users and to enshrine basic rules of the web. The neutrality of the web is of particular importance given the increasing role the digital sphere plays in our politics. As the man himself said: “As democracy thrives on the independence of the press, so it thrives on the independence of the Internet”.
As such, we need to see any threat to the impartiality of the digital space as a direct threat to democracy. We need to make sure that everyone has the same rights to access the web, and to do so without fear of oppression, censorship or monitoring. We need to ensure that people have the right to connect with others online without restriction. And of course, we need to ensure that these rights are balanced with responsibilities about use of data and the prevention of crime. By creating this set of rules, Sir Tim argued that we would safeguard the web and enable us to use it effectively to meet the opportunities of the future.
The international nature of the web means that, unlike its parchment predecessor, the digital Magna Carta will need to be a global discussion which leads to commitments to be implemented on local level. London, a city with great traditions of innovation, openness and forward thinking must lead the way in meeting these challenges.