British Library publishes Digital Magna Carta – written-by-web-vote because it's 2015

Guess what? We don't like governments snooping

It's the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta: the document that King John was forced to sign by English barons in 1215, and which has served as the cornerstone for many of the world's judicial systems ever since. And to commemorate it, the British Library has published its crowdsourced version for the digital world.

The Digital Magna Carta was developed by asking kids to put forward clauses, and then allow anyone to vote for them online. The idea was developed by Sir Tim "Yes, that Tim" Berners-Lee's Web We Want campaign, which seeks to empower internet users over governments and business. In the end, roughly 30,000 votes on 500 clauses created the document.

In the very broadest sense, the digital version seeks to achieve the same thing as the original document: to limit the authority of the highest level of government but saying it is not a power in its own right.

The result is however a little, um, repetitious.

The top ten voted-for clauses have been published and eight of them cover the same basic topic: censorship and freedom of speech. So first, in the construction "the web we want will…" is: "not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information."

Next is "allow freedom of speech", then "be free from government censors in all countries", then "not allow any kind of government censorship". You get the idea. Mass surveillance makes it into the list at number six, listed alongside censorship.

The non-censorship clauses are:

  • Be available for all those who wish to use it, and
  • Not sell our personal information and preferences for money, and will make it clearer if the company/Website intends to do so

While it's not exactly, well, the Magna Carta, it does highlight the biggest concerns for young internet users in 2015.

What is glaring by its omission is privacy, and protection against harm committed online.

Some interesting snippets

Before everyone gets caught up in how wonderful the Magna Carta is however, it's worth remembering that the actual document is not what you think it is, and that it has been its interpretation over the years and its symbolic role more than its contents that have been so influential.

For, example, did you know that:

  • King John undermined the whole thing by almost immediately writing to the Pope complaining that he was forced to sign "this awful thing", and Pope Innocent then declared it "null and void" just 10 weeks after it was signed.
  • The Pope's declaration led to a war that came to an end after King John died in 1216. The Magna Carta then formed part of the peace treaty.
  • That it was only referred to as the Magna Carta after this war and beforehand it had been known as "the Charter of Runnymede" after the place where it was signed.
  • Only three of the 63 clauses still stand in law? The rest have been repealed. What stands is: freedom the English church; liberties and customs of London; and the most famous that: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions… except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."
  • That last famous clause - which was used two centuries later to create trial by jury - was in fact a minor issue when the Magna Carta was signed.
  • The document was less a statement of principle than a solution for the political and business elite - the barons - to stop the king from arresting them and charging them extra taxes (among other things).
  • There are just four copies of the original document and they are held by the British Library and Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals.

To celebrate the 800th anniversary, the Queen has got on her gold boat and headed down the Thames to the meadow where it was signed. ®


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