Joe Clements: We need an internet ‘bill of rights’

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The internet is effectively a lawless system that swings wildly between mob rule and oligarchic control.

This Session, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s legislative leadership are proposing legislation that would protect Florida citizens from Big Tech overreach.

The legislation wisely goes beyond the shallow policy solutions offered previously by both parties. The “Transparency in Technology Act” includes protections from capricious changes to platform terms of service, requires platforms to tell users why their accounts are suspended or terminated, and requires that algorithmic bias on behalf of a candidate be disclosed as a campaign finance contribution.

We are likely to get a good bill here in Florida, but it will not go far enough in addressing the core of our social conflicts around the internet.

What we really need is an internet bill of rights.

At question are what rights American citizens have on platforms that are privately owned and operated. On the one side, individuals want broad rights to use these powerful online platforms to achieve personal, social, economic and political objectives. On the other side are institutions and corporations whose interests often counter the online activity. WallStreetBets is a recent example of this conflict between online networks and institutions.

Driving the tension is that the internet is effectively a lawless system that swings wildly between mob rule and oligarchic control.

The online world is more important socially, economically and politically than the physical world. Our lives are managed via apps and sites that help us connect with friends, find a partner, get a new job, pay our bills, order food, call a car and book a doctor’s appointment.

Practically speaking, the terms of service of these companies are more important to everyday life than our actual constitutional rights. If you are removed from the internet, you are a second-class citizen in every meaningful respect.

Today, the internet exists in something roughly similar to a feudal system where there are no private property rights, no civil rights and no justice system.

An internet rights movement shifts the debate from one-off policy changes, as we are going to see in Florida, to a first-principles conversation about what the internet is and what we want it to be.

What rights should we consider? Assuming a person is using the internet under their true identity, here are a few proposed by thought leaders across the spectrum:

The Right to Data and Content Ownership. All data generated by an individual is property of the individual and can be sold or exchanged at the discretion of the individual or the individual’s assigned agent.

The Right to Speedy Appeal of Account Removal. An account associated with an individual or business must have the ability to appeal suspensions to the platform and permanent bans in court.

Freedom of Speech Defined Under Constitutional or FCC Standards. Questions about limits go to FCC or courts and not private Facebook tribunals.

The Right to Content Integrity. No unauthorized changes or disclaimers placed around content unless permitted by law.

The Right to Sue For Damages Over Wrongful Demonetization. Business accounts wrongfully suspended or terminated can sue for damages in court.

Bounded Platform Penalties. A platform can only ban a user for actions taken on that platform. For example, Uber cannot ban a rider who says something bad on Facebook and Etsy can’t remove an account for something posted on Twitter.

The rights we declare should be determined by a democratic process. In Florida, we have a good model for complex legal reforms in the Constitutional Revision Commission.

If DeSantis and legislative leadership want to bring a rights framework forward, they should appoint a politically diverse commission for the task of drafting an internet bill of rights and presenting those rights to the voters in the next general election for inclusion into the state constitution.

If the Florida model works, it can serve as an example for federal laws or constitutional amendments down the road.

The more democratic the process, the more legitimacy the new rights framework will have and the more peace we can expect as citizens have legal processes available to settle grievances that arise on the internet.

With internet rights, we can keep the upsides of innovation, connection and massive scale without the systems disruptions we see today.

The United States, after all, has always been a bet that individual rights are the foundation of human flourishing in the physical world. It’s a safe bet that individual rights will be the foundation of human flourishing in the cyber world as well.


Joe Clements is an entrepreneur, political consultant and tech analyst. He is the co-founder of Strategic Digital Services, a Florida-based digital media consulting and creative production firm. Clements holds a master’s degree in Applied American Politics and Public Policy from Florida State University. He can be reached at [email protected] or @JoePClements on Twitter.

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