Do we need a new Magna Carta for the digital age?

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By Madiha Hussein on

The current law can’t cope with social media


There’s no doubt that social media has revolutionised 21st century Britain — but data protection laws are still lagging behind.

In a period of profound political and technological change, the prospect of modernised legislation fit for a modernised democracy is increasingly essential, as opposed to the creation of a 21st century Magna Carta. Much of the existing set of data protection legislation was formulated in the nineties, before the current trend for social networking had commenced. To protect internet freedom, it is vital that the current law is versatile to the dynamic digital age.

Given the significant gap currently left in the law in relation to the internet, adequate legal protection needs to be afforded to such a large online population, in the same way they would be protected by the law offline.

Currently, certain individuals are left vulnerable to harassment, offence and defamation on the internet. This is an issue affecting the inalienable human rights of each individual — rights that are a modern descendant of Magna Carta.

The main difference between the Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act is that the former cannot assist the ordinary citizen in scrutinising state power, yet the latter can. There is nothing in Magna Carta to safeguard personal privacy, or free speech. It is for this reason that reforms need to be made to the current law regarding the internet in order to increase protection in cases of online abuse.

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Following the Charlie Hebdo attack last year, David Cameron pledged to expand the authorities’ power to access details of communications and their content in an effort to counteract the growing threat of terrorism through a planned Investigatory Powers Bill. With every aspect of life increasingly assuming an online social dimension, any form of privacy will soon be a forgotten relic of the past. As a person’s private life becomes part of the large data ecosystem, there is also a growing risk of data leaks and other unintended consequences.

The widespread availability of our personal data on the web incites the danger of digital privacy becoming extinct. Our data makes us very valuable products, accelerating the erosion of our privacy. Tighter controls must be implemented to ensure security services look at private data with appropriate legal oversight.

Online mass surveillance cannot be neutral as it leads to the presumption that everyone is guilty until proven innocent — an express breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In order for privacy to coexist with cyber security, benchmarks for privacy must be set as it is imperative to the formation of identity. To avert the blurring of democracy and dictatorship, the government’s involvement in internet regulation should be decreased to increase the responsibility of social media platforms.

The existing legal basis for child protection online is fragmented and in need of scrutiny. Analyses of a poll generated by the British Library in June 2015 revealed that 29% of students are concerned with the protection of young people and the prevention of cyber bullying. The collection of personal data by large corporations through targeted marketing is a form of commercial exploitation which cannot be comprehended by young children who reveal personal information to marketers without differentiating between online content and advertising. The Data Protection Act 1998 does not set out specific periods for data retention, therefore the boundaries of preservation remain ambiguous. The right to personal data is a fundamental principle and it is unwarranted for a service provider to retain metadata beyond the scope of delivering their service.

As the infosphere continues to grow exponentially, controlling one’s digital footprint becomes a challenge. The virtual world has completely transformed the way we live, thus the onus is on us as a civil hyper-connected society to use it with integrity. It’s also the job of the policy-makers to develop the right frameworks to enshrine it in, to provide the digital utopia the future generations are calling for.

Madiha Hussein is a politics student at Queen Mary University.

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