Public vote on new digital Magna Carta celebrates 800th anniversary of the charter

Edward Lowton | 08 June 2015

More than half of young people concerned about online safety, suggestions for new Magna Carta show

A photo of teeth and a thumb bone on a red background
King John's teeth and thumb bone© Photo Clare Kendall
A poll has opened allowing the opportunity to vote on a new ‘Magna Carta for the digital age’, marking 800 years since the charter was sealed and the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web.

Participants in the Magna Carta: My Digital Rights project will have the opportunity to choose from a range of more than 500 clauses based around the theme of freedom and control in the digital age, suggested by more than 3,000 students worldwide.  

The clauses submitted by the 11-18 year olds show a surprising trend – rather than calling for further freedoms and openness online, more than half show a concern safety and security.

Photo of a secondary school student in blue blazer and red jumper
A student debating as part of the British Library's Magna Carta: My Digital Rights project © British Library
Roly Keating, the Chief Executive of the British Library who jointly conceived the project alongside the World Wide Web Foundation, the Southbank Centre and the British Council, said: “My Digital Rights has provoked lively and timely discussion in classrooms around the UK and beyond.

“The results provide a fascinating perspective on how young people feel and talk about their lives on the internet.”

The clauses show that students want to feel safe and protected when using the internet, and are concerned about curbing cyberbullying, data protection and ensuring freedom from discrimination and harassment online.

Photo of a mindmap depicting digital rights issues on a white background
"Visual minutes" by Sandra Howgate, created for Magna Carta: My Digital Rights with the help of Year 9 girls from Maria Fidelis School at the Web We Want Festival, hosted by the Southbank Centre © British Library
One point of contention reflected in the clauses was prisoners' access to the internet. A 13 year-old student argued that prisoners should be allowed to contact their families, while another, aged 17, felt that the internet is a "luxury" which serving prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to access.

Professor Sir David Omand, the former Director of GCHQ and a project contributor, said: “The online world offers both opportunities and is crucial that young people are aware of and engage in an informed debate about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to protecting our liberties.”

The collaborative programme of events was launched on BBC Radio 1 earlier this year as part of the BBC’s Taking Liberties season. It has been supported by workshops, debates and teaching resources discussing digital topics such as cyberbullying and surveillance.

Photo of Shami Chakrabarti speaking in front of a white placard
The Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has contributed to a video for the project © British Library
Contributors including the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and web and open source advocate Simon Phipps have helped to create a series of accompanying articles and films.

“A Magna Carta for the digital age would ultimately have to be about protecting freedom online, whether from big business, big government, or organised crime," said Chakrabarti.

“But it would have to be global, truly international, as all human rights instruments have to be.”

Photo of a painting of an English king
First known portrait of King John by an unknown artist, 1620© National Portrait Gallery
The original Magna Carta, ‘The Great Charter’, was agreed by King John on June 15 1215.

While the majority of its 63 clauses have since been superseded, it still forms part of the UK’s unwritten constitution.

Most importantly, it recognised that everyone had right to justice and a fair trial and that all, including the king, were subject to the law.

GK Chesterton wrote that Magna Carta was "not a step towards democracy, but a step away from despotism.”

More from Culture24's coverage of Magna Carta:

A Magna Carta for the common(s) people: Cornelia Parker's Wikipedia Embroidery unveiled at British Library

Best-preserved Magna Carta goes on show at Salisbury Cathedral for Magna Carta 800

Curator's Choice: The Magna Carta at the British Library
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