A Magna Carta of the Web Must Include Labor Rights 

In the spring of 2014, Tim Berners-Lee proposed a document that calls for accountability on the Internet where rampant privacy violations by large corporations and the NSA have been a common occurrence. In a proposal for a Magna Carta of the Web (a Bill of Rights for the Internet),[1] Berners-Lee calls for affordable access, protection of personal user information, and the right to communicate in private. He evokes neutral networks that don’t discriminate against content or users, freedom of expression, and decentralized open infrastructure (Fitzgerald). Soliciting the support of groups and institutions, the inventor of the Web started a campaign under the title “The Web We Want.”   

This proposal comes to us at a time when Facebook increasingly takes on the role of a utility and should be treated accordingly. The government regulates utilities like electricity and water and should treat Facebook accordingly. Such regulation then could also be considered as an instrument of enforcement of a Bill of Rights for the Internet.

While Berners-Lee’s proposal comes with plenty of star power -- Edward Snowden endorsed it and Berners-Lee himself is no stranger to social capital himself-- it is by no means the first draft of such a document.  

What is stunning, however, is that over the past decade all of the proposals for such Bill of Rights relating to the Internet have been somewhat labor-blind. 

Tim Berners-Lee might consider to amend his Magna Carta to accommodate a framework for dignity and justice for paid work in the deregulated marketplace of the Internet. Adherence to such bill could become a point of competitive advantage for upstarts. Core rights for this unrecognized labor force should include

  • minimum wage,
  • the abolition of child labor (on Amazon Mechanical Turk, for example),
  • decent treatment,
  • fair working conditions including accurate classification (e.g., employee status if the work relationship does in fact justify that status).

We can also start thinking about this by taking cues from the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that was passed in New York State in late 2010, granting nannies, housekeepers, and others employed in private households basic legal rights like

  • a day of rest every seven days,
  • the right to overtime pay after 40 hours of work in a week

(New York State Department of Labor).

We might also take Ross Perlin’s “Intern Bill of Rights“ into consideration. Proposed in his book Intern Nation, Perlin asserts that all interns deserve

  • fair compensation for their work, usually in the form of wages or dedicated training,
  • the same legal protection as all other workers,
  • the same basic workplace benefits such as sick days and extra pay for overtime,

Interns, he writes, must not to be forced to take an unpaid internship and must not be required to pay in order to work. Interns should be treated with dignity and respect by coworkers and supervisors (Perlin 250). 

A Brazilian proposal for a Bill of Rights for the Internet originally suggested in 2009, is now going to the Brazilian Senate. The proposal cements the principle of net neutrality, which means that all network operators must treat all traffic equally and it protects the privacy of Brazilian Internet users by prohibiting providers from abusing user data. (“The Net Closes”)

In 2010, the Electronic Frontier Foundation authored A Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Network Users, in which they demanded the right to informed decision-making, the rights to control over one’s data, and the right to leave (Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Prior to the EFF, a group of Internet experts, academics, lawyers, journalists, activists, and students came together to phrase a Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, publicly asserting that all netizens are entitled to certain fundamental rights, which include the clarity of terms of service, the control of users over the sharing of their data, and the predictability of privacy change.[2]   

An additional enforced bill is the Passenger Bill of Rights in the European Union that defines the rights of passengers when things go wrong (e.g., cancellations, delays, or overbooking).[3]

A proposal by a group of scholars calls for a People’s Terms of Service Agreement for Facebook. This narrower agreement would be a collectively negotiated contract that reflects some common consumer priorities. “Interested users and consumer advocates would publicly debate their consensus priorities and then drop them into a model contract.” (Melber). The proposal further suggests that contracts could be unilaterally altered and that users have the right to have all of their materials permanently deleted. Users, they suggest, should have a right to compensation for commercial use of the user’s names or likeness, and that they have “the right to confidentiality, meaning that companies promise not to disclose personal information to third parties unless users meaningfully opt into such disclosure for each party.” (Melber).

The recent discourse about privacy has overshadowed the debate about the Internet as a portal for traditional labor exploitation. While all of the mentioned proposals echo similar concerns about intellectual property, permanency, transparency, and security, an understanding of the situation of online workers is significantly absent. Online workers should enjoy the same protections as workers who do not use the Internet as the exclusive interface for their daily toil.  We need a common standard that would allow us to evaluate and improve distributed work online.

 The responses to these various proposals for a Bill of Rights for the Internet have been mixed. At first, the call for such a bill may seem vague and inconsequential. Could such expression of human consciousness in the digital age really change the power imbalance between users and intermediaries? Is there enough public awareness of such Bill of Rights?  Would an industry with millions of customers who have varying degrees of interests in their privacy even care about such non-enforceable bill? And while asserting such basic rights is quite honorable, how would they ever be enforced and by whom? Would trolls ever dig such guidelines for the net?  Would governments respect such documents?  One thing is clear, any smell of regulation would seem super suspicious to libertarian types, back in the 1990s and also today. Just think of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which is clearly hostile to any such rules or regulations (Barlow).  

 At first glance, such non-binding agreements seem of little value because there are no legitimate instruments for enforcement. But then, compare this to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is not legally binding but has been adopted by many national constitutions since 1948. National and international law has been influenced by this declaration and many local institutions have also adopted parts of it. While not directly enforceable, the Bill of Rights for the Internet could become a compelling instrument when applying moral pressure on governments and corporations alike. 



Barlow, John Perry. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” N. p., 02 1996.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Network Users.” N. p., 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

Fitzgerald, Brian. “Tim Berners-Lee: The Web Needs a Magna Carta.” Washington Post – Blogs 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.

Melber, Ari. “Fighting Facebook, a Campaign for a People’s Terms of Service.” The Nation 22 May 2013. The Nation. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

New York State Department of Labor. “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.” N. p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Perlin, Ross. Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. 1st ed. Verso, 2012. Print.

“The Net Closes.” The Economist 29 Mar. 2014. The Economist. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.


[1] Berners-Lee did in fact refer to a Magna Carta of the Web, but I chose to discuss the proposal in the perhaps more fitting context of the Internet, also avoiding the possibly distracting comparison to the historical Magna Carta of 1215, which was a document forced onto the English king by feudal barons, aiming at limiting his powers. A Bill of Right for the Internet should be more than a political charter negotiated by various rulers.

[2]   Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arlington led the initial meeting in 2007.  The more inclusive follow-up meeting took place in 2010 at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, which resulted in the Bill of Rights of the Social Web asserting 14 fundamental rights. http://opensocialweb.org/2007/09/05/bill-of-rights/  A more specific proposal was made by Tim O’Reilly who responded to death threats against the blogger Kathy Sierra  by  calling for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct. http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/03/call-for-a-bloggers-code-of-co.html  many visible bloggers vehemently opposed the proposal.

[3] Passengers can refer to an Air Passenger Bill of Rights that not only makes the responsibilities of the airlines abundantly clear, but also spells a course for action if the response by a given airline is not appropriate. The bill details compensation rights in case of missed connecting flights and requires airlines to clearly state the total price of tickets including taxes and all other surcharges. It also grants passengers the right to be informed about the causes for delays, and much more.  The bill also offers contact numbers on the EU-level to get in touch with enforcement authorities in case airlines don’t follow up.