There I was, reading the paper and fretting about the usual stuff – Trump’s USA, Brexit, populism, the crisis of democracy – when I spotted an article about Tim Berners-Lee launching the #ForTheWeb campaign.
In case you haven’t caught up with it yet, #ForTheWeb is a campaign to get the Internet back to its original ideal of a positive, democratic force for good, and away from the dystopia which Berners-Lee and many of the rest of us see now.
In his address to launch the campaign, Berners-Lee spoke about “A Magna Carta for the Web,” a phrase which got me thinking about our wider issues in a new way.
For me, this isn’t just a necessary campaign in its own right, it also gives a new perspective on the corrosive political and social environment we live in.
The Internet has played a part in creating this environment, but fixing what we do with the Web won’t fix everything that’s wrong.
Magna Carta is an icon in the development of modern democracy, yet its content is at least as much about human rights and justice as it is about democracy in the sense of enfranchisement.
Similarly, much of today’s vitriol and hate is not about people having a vote, it’s about what happens when they use it to elect leaders who are prepared to ride roughshod over the human rights of others to protect and advance partisan or national self-interest.
It’s a dilemma for democracy. If democracy allows anti-democratic forces free play, it risks being destroyed by those forces. If it suppresses them, it compromises and potentially destroys itself.
It’s one of the reasons that ‘democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others’, to quote Churchill quoting someone else.
Magna Carta and similar pivotal declarations like the one in 1776 go some way to addressing this dilemma by setting ground rules for how democracy should operate to protect human rights and avoid the destructive power of ‘Might is Right.’
These self-evident truths are more important now than ever, yet you could say that our Free World PLC is having to sustain them under a corporate governance framework which is 250 or 800 years old, depending where you’re from.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I do believe we are at a tipping point where a Magna Carta 2 could do us a lot of good.
#ForTheWeb is a good start, #ForTheWorld would be better, because the threats we face to those guiding principles aren’t just around the Internet, and they are fundamental and imminent.
By allowing any nation or corporate body to ignore humanity’s destruction of the world’s environment, we are sanctioning genocide through negligence.
If we allow those privileged few countries which are economically strongest to pull up the drawbridge and shut out those which are weak; if we allow the wealth created by the digital economy to be sucked up by ever fewer individuals and corporations, we take ourselves towards the dystopia of HG Wells’ Time Machine, of privileged Elio constantly battling the downtrodden Morlocks.
Magna Carta 2’s scope would need to be global, and would encompass corporations as well as governments because so much wealth, power and influence now lies in corporate hands.
Like Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence it would be a straightforward declaration of essential principles stating the basic responsibilities of governments and corporations to the wider world in which they operate.
From laying down that no individual or group should suffer harm or disadvantage because of their gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, nationality, ethnicity or disability, to enshrining our duty to do all we can to save the environment, to proscribing the spiral of prejudice which begins when one nation or group deems inferior or deserving of destruction because of who they are.
Corporations should be responsible and accountable to all their stakeholders – not just shareholders, but customers, employees and the countries, communities and environments in which they operate.
I’m sure you can think of other principles. In framing a new charter we would need to distil them into a dozen or so at most to give it power and resonance (think mission and goals, and that this lot may need to last us another 800 years), but we can do that.
Of course, in the words of a much greater writer, you may say I’m a dreamer.
To start with, who would take on framing such a charter?
It’s hard to see which of the major nations would take the lead given how many of them are seem to be moving away from global co-operation towards narrow nationalist self-interest, although I do harbour a sneaking hope for Sweden.
Once framed, who would sign up to it?
Even if a significant number of nations and corporations did, it might only take a change of government or board, or the next global recession, to make them change their minds.
Such a charter would impede each signatory’s right to self-determination, to follow the will of its people or its shareholders.
And anyway, don’t we already have the United Nations, the International Court of Human Rights et al covering this?
All valid arguments, but I don’t believe they should stop us trying.
If we go on as we are down the route of no-holds barred adversarial politics, narrow national and corporate self-interest, and the harm, prejudice and hate they spawn, I believe something fundamental is going to break soon.
If Sweden’s not the answer, maybe a forward thinking business leader could take the lead.
If national governments won’t provide the follow-up and impetus, perhaps we can find it in the shared principles and energy of #ForTheWeb, #MeToo and all the campaigns which share the ethos of respect for the world and all humanity. Forgive me, but I don’t think the UN are in the right place any more to do this.
Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, The League of Nations and The United Nations; all started from brutal practical necessity rather than some abstract desire to do the right thing.
The last three were spawned by an urgent drive to fix things after destructive conflicts. Magna Carta was more proactive, an early example of a leader heading off an imminent crisis by refocusing stakeholders on the core proposition.
That’s why I for one would prefer to see something like Magna Carta 2 happening now, rather than the after the world is completely broken.