A Magna Carta for the digital age

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 15 Jun 2015

I often think about how hard it would be to explain contemporary casual travelling to people who lived hundreds of years ago. How to explain to a medieval knight that, while I’m based in London, because the Commission has an office in Manchester, I spend every Wednesday there – but am still home in time for supper? Or that even the M1 is insufficient to deter me from spending weekends in Snowdonia? However, I may have misjudged some of our forebears. The Times published a column last week on the travels of King John. Someone has plotted his travels from the documents of the time which show he travelled an amazing amount around England long before the M1 was there to help or hinder.

I thought about this when I read about a poll commissioned by the British Library to discover what should be included in a Magna Carta for the digital age. Popular favourites in terms of what people wanted from the internet seem to be safety and freedom - freedom of speech (voted for by 17% of young people) and feeling safe and protected on-line (29%).

The connection to King John's travels is that our ideas about safety and freedom these days seem very different from what they were in 1215. Presumably, King John had an eye for physical safety when travelling around on horseback, but of course travelling was that much more important in an era without telephones or email and he would have had to get in the saddle to communicate. There’s something challenging in the idea that medieval nobles would have been troubled by the danger inherent in sitting down in front of a laptop.

Freedom was also a much more concrete notion then and much more a matter of life and death. Of course, Magna Carta itself is only for free men and was devised by nobles for nobles on the basis of pure self-interest. So the fact the descendants of King John’s subjects want freedom to say what they want on the internet, shows in many ways how far we have travelled. Which of course reminds us of the price paid this year by journalists in Paris for freedom of speech, and the legal framework guidance we published on the subject in February.

It's interesting, from the perspective of the Commission to take a look at the text of Magna Carta and to wonder how relevant we are by the standards of 1215. What I found was that there is more there that resonates than you might think, even given that the text sees things through a baronial lens. It starts off, for example, with a declaration of the freedom of the Catholic Church in England – a wise move by the King, who had only recently been welcomed back into the fold by the Pope, having been excommunicated a few years earlier. 800 years later, the EHRC is carrying out a three-year programme of work to strengthen understanding of the laws protecting religion or belief and to examine their effectiveness.

Moving on, the text offers a degree of protection for the widows of noblemen. No obstacles to being paid your marriage portion and some protection against subsequent enforced marriage. However, the giveaway is the protection offered immediately beforehand to estates of minor noble orphans. This is about securing succession and posterity and less about women’s rights. Indeed, clause 54, near the end of Magna Carta, says that no one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband. Things are a little better 800 years later, and the EHRC is planning this year to publish our research on the scale and impact of pregnancy and maternity discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace, as part of our project to improve awareness and protection of women's rights.

“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” Extremely laudable, 791 years before the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Commission and surely the natural precursor to EHRC’s work on appointment on merit through open and transparent selection processes. 2015 will see us report our findings into diversity on FTSE 350 boards, and promote fair recruitment practices that secure appointments based on merit. And we have just announced a new project to increase diversity in the television sector – producing guidance to help broadcasters expand the talent pool from which they will find the best candidates.

Lastly, clause 40 famously promises 'To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.' One of the key projects in our Business Plan this year is to examine the state of access to civil justice and the availability of advice and assistance on equality and human rights issues.

So, despite the challenges of the M1, our standards and principles in Britain in 2015 are an improvement, if only because of the questions we are asking about, and the aspirations that our children hold for, safety and freedom.

That does not mean that questions of freedom, liberty and human rights are not still just as hotly debated, relevant and pertinent - as we know from the arguments about changes to our human rights laws. It’s not always clear today who are the barons and who is the Monarch!

It also occurred to me that it’s interesting to take a quick glance at what was happening in English history at the mid-point between Runnymede and 2015, because this takes you to Charles I. Arguably, the Roundheads disliked Charles I even more than the barons were averse to King John, but King John got off more lightly. Democracy, in the shape of the English Parliament, established in the decades following Magna Carta, had quite a long way to travel on the road to 2015, with lots of ups and downs along the way, and still to come. Like King John, we are committed to the journey and holding fast to the reins.