Regulating the web: Does the internet need its own bill of rights?

Experts in Italy are working on proposals that will set out web users' rights and obligations – a draft bill that could eventually be adopted across Europe.
Written by Federico Guerrini, Contributor

Does the internet need its own bill of rights? Italy is already working on a draft document that could end up being discussed and adopted across Europe.

The Italian government is working on a 'bill of rights' for the internet, which could serve as the foundation for a model defining web users' rights and obligations, potentially not just in Italy but throughout the continent.

An ad hoc committee, composed partly of politicians from all parliamentary parties, and partly by independent experts in the field — scholars, journalists, representatives of the telecoms industry and of consumers' associations — will draft a series of proposals for an internet bill of rights.

During the committee's first meeting, which took place late last month, it was decided that a smaller group of experts, led by jurist and politician Stefano Rodotà, would produce a first draft of the bill, to be discussed by all committee members by the end of September.

It's not the first time that Rodotà, a well-known and respected figure who served for many years as member of the European Parliament, was involved in a similar project: back in 2006 he was among the first to propose a 'constitution for the internet', but time was not ripe for its adoption.

The committee's introductory session also defined a series of topics to work on, including internet access as a universal right; net neutrality; freedom of information; the need to find a balance between transparency, the rule of law and privacy; protecting users against the misuse of their data by online companies; and digital literacy.

The committee's finished proposals will be presented at an interparliamentary "meeting of fundamental rights" organised by the EU presidency in Rome in October, and will also be subject to public consultation in Italy on the Civi.ci platform, where the work of the country's Commission on Constitutional Reforms is published. 

The initiative was promoted by Chamber of Deputies' president, Laura Boldrini. "The internet — it's an essential bridge to access knowledge and relationships. But it needs rules. Rules don't limit liberty, but they are needed to guarantee it. The constitutional approach to rules is fundamental to guarantee that those rules are written to be just," she said.

The idea of regulating the internet has always been controversial, as it might seem difficult to draw a clear line between establishing a set of rules and limiting freedom of expression and access to knowledge. Boldrini herself, shortly after being elected as president of the chamber, was accused of trying to censor the web, when, in 2013, after receiving insults and physical threats on blogs and social networks, she invoked measures to "stop the internet anarchy". However, the bill of rights has nothing to do with censorship, she maintains — as does Rodotà, who also dismisses the widespread idea that the internet, as it currently stands, is not regulated.

"The internet is full of laws," he said. "Actually, we are used to accept and sign many 'terms of service' that are very binding and that put an enormous power into service providers' hands." The question therefore is not whether the internet is regulated or not, but who does the regulating, he said.

Some recent developments — from the European Court of Justice ruling that introduced the so-called 'right to be forgotten', to the Italian data protection authority's decision that Google should change the way it collects, handles, and stores users' data seem to hint at the fact that legislators are beginning to step in, in Europe at least, in what used to be a space where companies were largely free to set their own rules.

Italy, incidentally, is not the only country that is trying to promote a model for internet governance. "A model that's being studied worldwide is that of Brazil, which recently introduced a civil rights framework for the internet called Marco Civil, but Italy wants to go beyond that and propose an internet bill of rights for Europe during the current semester," a spokeswoman for the Chamber of Deputies' said.

Time, however, is short, just a little more than two months' work, before the meeting in Rome. The risk is it will result in only a draft generic declaration of principles, with little or no real impact.

"To avoid this I think we should address in our proposals serious and current issues like those of electronic surveillance and users' data retention, trying to define a common regulatory framework that could be adopted by most European States," the co-director of the Nexa Center for Internet & Society at the Politecnico of Turin Juan Carlos De Martin, who is also a member of the bill of rights committee, told ZDNet.

The challenge now, for the government and the committee, is to live up to their own expectations. If they do, the proposed bill of rights could prove to be a boon for Italy, whose young prime minister Matteo Renzi is considered to be a fan of everything digital. If they fail, or the regulatory proposal gets simply largely ignored by other member states, the country's prestige could face a serious blow.

Read more from Italy

Editorial standards