Why New Zealand needs a digital bill of rights

by Peter Griffin / 13 November, 2017
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Sir Tim Berners-Lee: “many forces are abusing or threaten to abuse the net”. Photo/Getty Images

The change of government sets the stage for passing a much-needed digital bill of rights. Peter Griffin explains how it could work.

As the Ardern Government gets down to figuring out how to slash immigrant numbers and plant one billion trees, it will also be looking to enact Labour’s extensive technology manifesto, which includes a digital bill of rights.

In the post-Edward Snowden world of government mass surveillance and tech giants amassing our personal data, a movement to reset the balance of power in the digital realm in favour of citizens has gathered steam.

The case for mirroring in the online world the human and civil rights we enjoy in the physical world is perhaps being best made by British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web and has been pushing for a global “Magna Carta for the internet”.

“As the web is giving people greater and greater power individually and collectively, many forces are abusing or threaten to abuse the net and its citizens,” he said in 2014 on the 25th anniversary of the web.

But trying to get nations to adopt anything like his internet manifesto is an uphill battle. In the US, the Trump Administration is busy dismantling net neutrality, the concept that all data carried over the net is treated equally regardless of sender and receiver.

China, meanwhile, isn’t giving up its Great Firewall that allows it to censor what more than a billion people see online, and British Prime Minister Theresa May has used recent terrorist attacks as an excuse to introduce what’s being tagged the “snooper’s charter”, which among other things would allow police to access internet records without a warrant and require internet providers to retain everyone’s web browsing histories for one year.

The European Union stands alone in its meaningful efforts to improve protection for its citizens in the digital space, although this has also manifested itself in ill-conceived, right-to-be-forgotten regulation that effectively allows EU citizens to have embarrassing information about themselves expunged from internet search engines.

British PM Theresa May:  behind the so-called “snooper’s charter”. Photo/Getty Images

Most of New Zealand’s internet services are hosted overseas, so the rules that determine what companies do with our data and whether, say, encryption can be sidestepped by law-enforcement agencies are set in Silicon Valley and Washington.

So, what could Labour’s digital bill of rights actually achieve?

First, it could roll back increased surveillance powers brought in by the National-led Government and throw out the three-strikes law for copyright infringers, which hasn’t dented digital piracy anyway.

But beyond protection for citizens that exists in the likes of the Bill of Rights Act and the Privacy Act, it could enshrine in law the right for individuals to control their own data, have a secure place to store it and be able to see how the Government and private companies use it. It could aid those who aren’t able to access digital services by guaranteeing a connection through free broadband and use of devices. Net neutrality could be preserved in law before it comes under threat here, too.

Labour is proposing to build a legal framework to uphold such rights. In an age of eroding privacy, this is a laudable aim, potentially limiting the growing tendency for governments to track citizens’ online movements and the harvesting of data by such companies as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple that turns their customers into products.

Apple’s newest phone, the iPhone X, for instance, is about to make facial recognition mainstream as a means of personal identification. The “faceprint” of millions of us will soon be in the company’s hands.

Also on the horizon are internet-of-things devices that capture information about every aspect of our lives. Governments, too, will increasingly seek to collect and analyse our data so they can target services at citizens, an approach that has been dubbed social investment.

Labour will have its work cut out designing a digital bill of rights that accounts for the reality of our largely outsourced internet, but it is something worth fighting for.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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