A brave new world

The proposed digital civil rights should be a clear statement that our fundamental human rights also apply to our online existence, says Antonio Ghio.

Last year’s events in North Africa highlighted the importance of social media and ICT in today’s world. Many falling regimes decided that by cutting off their citizens’ access to information tools, they could control the uprisings. They were very wrong.

It is the first step towards the legal crystallisation of a reality we live in and without which we cannot reach our potential as individuals

Recently the issue of looking at the internet and all that it stands for as a civil right has emerged. Fortunately, through the publication of the White Paper on digital rights earlier this month, it appears that the Maltese public is being invited to contribute to this discussion.

Within this evolving discussion, one needs to first of all distinguish between fundamental human rights and civil rights even though they go hand in hand. This distinction was clearly made by Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the internet as we know it, in his open letter to The New York Times early this year.

A civil right is a tool to enjoy your fundamental human rights enshrined in our constitution and international treaties. In this sense, the internet can be seen not just as a tool but a very important one. The recognition of rights inherently linked to a networked society can be seen as a reflection that the principles on which societies are built are not static and the ways in which we can enjoy our fundamental human rights is in constant flux – this also depends on the appreciation our society has of the very same tools which enable us to enjoy such fundamental rights as freedom of expression and our right to a private life.

While a handful of countries recognised the right to internet access or broadband, the proposed principles as contained in the White Paper go beyond that. It is not just the recognition of universal service or the setting of some minimum level of service – rather, it is the first step towards the legal crystallisation of a reality we live in and without which we cannot reach our potential as individuals.

Published figures relating to internet penetration rates in Maltese households and the utilisation of social networks all point towards the importance that Maltese society gives to these technologies. The proposed principles should go beyond a mere recognition of the right of access to the technical infrastructure of the internet but could serve as overarching guiding principles relating to internet censorship, free flow of information and privacy.

There are already myriad laws relating to issues such as privacy on the internet and the use of the internet as an important tool for commerce just to name a few. These new principles will not re-invent this but should elevate the importance we now give to these concepts, making them available and easily accessible to everyone without the need of being a lawyer or academic to establish where these legal principles are contained – this should be irrespective of the fact that real enforceability might lie in some other statute or distinct provision.

In this light, the proposed digital principles should endeavour to highlight the importance laws relating to technology that have emerged during the past years have in today’s connected world, a clear statement that our fundamental human rights also apply to our online existence.

The proposed digital civil rights should set the bar of how we value the role of technology and our right to privacy and information today. These new principles should serve as a litmus test against which we measure any new law which would be perceived as invading our private lives, our right to be part of a digital community, our right to express ourselves freely on the internet.

I think this is the realisation of how dear the internet has become to all of us and to the fact that we do not want anyone to mess with our internet and with our online experience.

The proposed digital rights go beyond ACTA and the application of such rights will not address all the perceived issues that ACTA has raised. The proposed digital rights are not being imposed by anyone. We all have this golden opportunity to shape this brave new world as we are all players in it.

I dearly hope that the proposed principles will not, like too many things on this tiny island, end up being entangled into partisan politics.

Dr Ghio is a partner at Fenech and Fenech Advocates, specialising in ICT Law ( He also lectures in ICT Law and Cybercrime at the University of Malta.


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