800 Years on: How has the Magna Carta Shaped Law Today?

2015 marks 800 years since the development of the Magna Carta, one of the most celebrated documents in history, described by the revered Lord Thomas Bingham as ‘The Rule of Law in embryo’.

With eight centuries of history behind it, how has this revolutionary document shaped the modern legal industry and what relevance does it have for the practice of contemporary law and business in the 21st century?

What is the Magna Carta?

Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, the 13th century charter established, for the first time, the principle that everyone is subject to the law, even the King. It’s now clear that the enduring influence of the Magna Carta on legal thought and development is profound.

Providing the foundation for English common law, which spread throughout the English-speaking world, the Magna Carta implemented fundamental legal concepts, such as the right to liberty, trial by jury and freedom from arbitrary arrest. While the importance of the famed historical document experienced a gradual decline in political significance after 1300, it was later revived by Sir Edward Coke, a respected jurist, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and an author of legal textbooks. One of Coke’s works, Institutes of the Laws of England, reiterated the Magna Carta’s paramount position in English law and legal history.

The Magna Carta is widely recognised as a major influence on many common law documents, including the United States Constitution, the American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter, and is one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. According to Justin Fisher, a professor of political science at Brunel University London, “[The] Magna Carta is a cornerstone of the individual liberties that we enjoy, and it presents an ongoing challenge to arbitrary rule.

“[The] Magna Carta can also be seen as a foundation of accountability, of popular democracy, and even of the importance of engaged citizens.”

A Magna Carta for the web

In the wake of global internet scandals, such as the Edward Snowden intelligence leaks and mass government monitoring of online activity, there has never been a more apt time to debate what kind of internet we want to create for the future.

Realising the value of this legal tome, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, says we need a digital Magna Carta: an online bill of rights to combat growing internet and government control. And when the hallowed, progressive king of the internet warns a revolution is coming, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

“If a company can control your access to the internet, if they can control which websites you go to, then they have tremendous control over your life,” said Berners-Lee at London’s Web We Want festival on the future of the internet.

“Suddenly the power to abuse the open internet has become so tempting, both for government and big companies,” he said.

“There have been lots of times that it has been abused, so now the Magna Carta is about saying… I want a web where I’m not spied on, where there’s no censorship.”

Conducting a TED talk in March, 2014, Berners-Lee told the audience that 40 per cent of the world’s population are using the web and counting, meaning we need fair laws to govern a global internet population.

It seems the rest of the world is starting to listen. In February, a London panel of experts met to discuss the digitisation of the Magna Carta and the prospect of multi-jurisdictional cooperation, in order to ensure the independence of the internet and users’ privacy.

How would a digital Magna Carta actually work?

Most of us are aware of, and increasingly concerned about, excessive surveillance, internet hacking and the security of our data. The Snowden leak revealed that many of the world’s largest internet companies allow the US government back-door access to data.

Speaking with The Guardian, Berners-Lee noted that in practical terms, the digital Magna Carta would be likely to include the following features and benefits:

  • a shared document of principle that could provide an international standard for the values of the open web
  • removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce (which Berners-Lee says is long overdue)
  • the web could be balkanised by countries or organisations carving up the digital space to work under their own rules, whether for censorship, regulation or commerce.

However, as discussed by Vanessa Barnett and Malcolm Dowden in UK’s Computer Weekly, implementing a digital Magna Carta is not without its challenges, largely due to the global dimension. Dowden and Barnett point out that funding and access to electricity and the internet are key issues, with UN and World Bank reports estimating that up to 1.2 billion people worldwide are not connected.

Yet, despite these challenges, it seems clear that there’s a place in the modern world for a clear global charter of internet rights. So when Berners-Lee asks what kind of internet we want, it’s the kind of place where the right to freedom of expression is balanced against the responsibility to protect individual rights to privacy.

800 years on, lawyers have a significant role to play in shaping and framing that dialogue and digital document. As a legal professional, what role will you play?

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