Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

A Declaration of Digital Rights

July 18 2019
Defending The Future of Individual Rights on the Internet

To the Citizens of the United States of America[1]:

According the wise traditions of America, we as individuals have inalienable rights imbued to us by our Creator[2]. These rights are intrinsic to us and expressly not granted by governments; rather, it is the government’s primary duty to respect and defend these already-existing and intrinsic rights[3].

Some of these rights are outlined in The United States Bill of Rights and critical to your digital rights are these[4]:

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It is absolutely critical for citizens of the United States to clearly understand how these rights translate to rights in digital spaces.

The origin of our digital rights is when we create digital property (data) with our computer equipment, which induces specific physical changes in our computer property and is legally equivalent to when we use paper and ink to write a letter. We must design and use Internet protocols that translate the rights we have concerning regular speech and writing to the digital space of the Internet.[5]

Contemporary social media architectures have completely flouted this idea in order to pursue the narrow and dominating interests typical to large corporations[6]: profit, control, evasion of accountability, and exclusivity. Their proprietary protocols and siloed architectures were always a bad idea (that was more obvious to some of us than to others), but the consequences circa 2019 have escalated to such levels that President Trump invited non-mainstream groups to the White House for a “Social Media Summit” to discuss these. The Summit did not directly lead to any specific or correct solutions, but it is a leading indicator of the discontent that has fomented since social media giants began radically undermining free civic discourse in around 2016, as a misguided (at best) backlash to the election of President Trump.

While this trend is a chilling reminder that our society is never very far from George Orwell’s “1984”, it also presents an opportunity for vast improvement, for at no other time in the history of the Internet have so many been aware of the problems that Big Tech has been creating (and not just during the past three years but over the past few decades).

To solve this problem we are going to need three things: 1) a technical leadership designing open protocols, who have an absolutely unswerving devotion to reason[7] and individual rights; 2) an institution devoted to educating the public on what kinds of technologies they need and deserve, expressed in fundamental and rational terms; 3) a constellation of companies explicitly committed to creating technical solutions in accordance to these ideals.

Understanding what our rights are and how they generally apply to digital technologies is actually very simple. The problem has not been that it is particularly technically difficult to identify and implement rights-respecting technologies (at least not relative to the billions spent on rights-usurping technologies), but because the leadership involved in building most of our major technologies thus far has simply had no motive whatsoever to protect our digital rights, which are:

  1. Property. The Right to privately create, hold, and manage our digital property. This property may exist as posts, comments, articles, programs, emails, photos, videos – all legal digital information whatsoever. The origin of this digital property is ourselves; it should therefore belong to us by default. To automatically claim all the digital property we create, or to devise the means of making it difficult to control our own data on our own platforms of choice, is for us to be exploited, to be data serfs.

  2. Association. The Right to our digital identities, and to build sovereign digital associations based on these. We should not lose our network of contacts just because we stopped using a given platform; so long as a given party consents to communicate with us, we should be free to communicate with them, regardless of platform.
  3. Privacy. The Right to communicate our digital property directly with any number of consenting parties, encrypted, without having our communications intercepted, copied, or analyzed by third parties. We are to be presumed innocent; our Fourth Amendment rights must be respected.

    There will be criminals that use rights-supporting digital technologies, but we should take no more responsibility for their behavior than paper and ink manufacturers do when criminals put these technologies to bad ends. To strip the rights of innocents because of the guilty is to compound the crimes with even more crimes. Criminals will find a way, regardless of our technologies; their use of computer systems and software applications is incidental and unavoidable, as with the many other products of modern civilization they also use. It is a gross tyranny to do other than simply respect and protect the rights of innocent citizens.

  4. Contract. The Right to prescribe specific terms of how our digital property may be used by publishing/indexing platforms.
  5. Justice. The Right to legally enforce the above rights through the due process of law.

    We abandon such right when we engage on the Internet completely anonymously, which effectively transfers our digital property rights to another party.

For the most part, the United States Government technically respects the foregoing rights: we are legally entitled to create data on our computers, keep and control access to it, and share our encrypted data with third parties without being snooped on. The NSA’s data-gathering activities are a glaring exception; however, it is still legal in the United States to share strongly encrypted data on the Internet. So in a very substantial measure, the United States Government is respecting and upholding our digital rights, for the time being.

The major problem at the moment is that large corporations are wildly flouting and undermining our digital rights. Instead of building technologies that amplify our ability to exercise these rights, they tirelessly work to undermine and exploit them. Indeed, the precedents these corporations have recklessly put our legal rights at risk, for to neglect exercising your rights is to invite the government to outlaw their exercise.

It is up to us to create and support new initiatives and companies that are explicitly and uncompromisingly dedicated to respecting and facilitating the exercise of your digital rights to their utmost. The morally-neutered technology nerd is destroying the hard-won liberties of our ancestors. It’s past time to leave his digital plots and build anew.

  1. I address Americans specifically because it is the duty of those who have inherited our great traditions to stand up and defend them, not only for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of the rest of the world.
  2. Whether one construes “Creator” as “Nature” or as “Nature’s God” (I take these terms from from The Declaration of Independence), is not relevant to this document.
  3. For a philosophical justification of these, see, for example: Liberty: The Theory of Rights, by Shayne Wissler.
  4. Other countries’ governments may not respect our Bill of Rights or other inalienable rights. As we should have known and have learned, to compromise with them, or to help them violate the rights of their own citizens, is to dilute our rights to oblivion. We should be the shining beacon to the world for how governments and corporations should treat innocent citizens; we should not bow to international pressure but should expect them to alter their laws such that they uphold individual rights – we should be exporting our freedoms to them, not allowing them to import their tyrannies to us. When a corporation bows to the foreign pressures that they facilitate the violation of the inalienable individual rights of their citizens, it is always corrupting to those corporations.
  5. Corporations partly operating on unearned government privileges have been systematically undermining individual digital ownership using a variety of legal technicalities and morally unjustifiable laws (it is beyond the scope to explore these here), aiming to turn us into their data serfs. Where they will not offer us products that we fully legally own, and services that treat our data neutrally, they must be legally forced to do so, on the grounds that their government privileges come with the cost of adhering to The Bill of Rights.
  6. Arguably these corporations constitute a de facto government, a grossly unaccountable and feudalistic one, and particularly dangerous given that journalism has been hyper-consolidated in our era.
  7. Hopefully it is clear to the reader why only rational parties (i.e. those who substantiate what they advocate with logic and evidence) can be trusted to coherently design or advocate for anything.
  8. Version v11. You should be able to access the latest version of this document here.