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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Is Internet Access A Human Right?

A relatively new (new as in modern) idea is starting to emerge in the world. With the advancement of society and technology, we are forced to face challenges with our rights. The internet is a very new advancement and a revolutionary one in human history, but how does this advancement play into our rights?

When this question is brought up there are many differing opinions but it can be boiled down to a more simple question. The first question that should always be asked is do we have a right to access the internet? This question is vital because it can, like the internet itself, be completely revolutionary to a society.

The United Nations, as of 2011, has recognized internet access a human right, which means at least one authority on human rights seems to think that access to the internet is a fundamental right of the people. The Special Rapporteur report addressed the issue of internet access comprehensively and ultimately concludes that internet access is and should be considered a basic human right.

This support from the UN is both good and bad. It is good, because it means that there is an official body supported by many nations that supports this perceived right. However, it can be seen negatively because the UN, while quite good with recognizing human rights, has essentially no enforcement power. So even though one could claim the UN grants them a right to internet access, there is no way to secure or receive compensation from that right being infringed upon.

Now to actually address the question above. In regards to internet access being a human right there seem to be two distinct sides to this...discussion. On the one hand you have those who support internet access as a basic civil right. On the other you have those who say the internet is not a human right but a civil one. You also have those who don't believe it should be a right at all, but for brevity and simplicity purposes I think its safe to lump them with those you believe if it were a right it would be civil one (they just don't believe that the government should give that right).

This distinction is an important one. Its important to understand the difference in these to understand its significance. A human right, is something that is considered to be had merely for being human and other definitions, but it comes down to they are inherent rights to be had. A civil right is one that is bestowed by the state. A civil right does not exist without government. For example a human right is the right to not be discriminated against or right to life, and a civil right would be voting rights, or marriage rights. All of the above mentioned are rights had by peoples however the right to vote is one that can only be conferred by the government.

Keeping that distinction in mind it seems to be an interesting idea to say the internet is then a civil right as opposed to a human one. The internet is not necessarily intertwined with the government which suggests to me that it would not be civil right. Marriage, voting, etc, are all powers that are directly derived from government which is why they are considered civil rights. It therefore seems to follow that the internet does not fall into this category. Rather, the idea of internet access being a human right rests upon the idea of it being derived from one's freedom of expression and freedom of information access.

The internet has become a new open and public forum in which individuals can express their views. Similarly to the right to free press, public demonstrations, public assembly; the right to access the internet stems from the idea that people have an inherit right to express their views, and the internet is another forum in which to do so.

Some might argue that such rights mentioned above are civil as they are granted (and generally in response to a government). However, I would argue that even though such rights generally have to do with a governing body/power, they are not inherent of one. I would argue that even if the government were to say you don't have the right to assembly that you in fact do. Again you have the right to express your views, regardless of whether or not the government approves. This right seems fundamental to not only humanity but any kind of democracy or socially responsible government.

Vincent Cerf

Vint Cerf, often cited as 'the father of the internet', had this to say on this issue: "The best way to characterise human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring internet access a human right, acknowledged that the internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself."

On this issue Cerf is not supportive of the idea that internet access is a human right. As you can see above he makes a distinction between means to an end and an end in itself. While taking issue with this analysis of human rights, I will address what Cerf says about rights to speech and information access. Cerf above claims that human rights is to identify outcomes, but that is not really the case with these very obviously and commonly accepted human rights.

Freedom of speech is about a having the means/ability to express one's views without prosecution. One could claim that this is about the 'end' of not being prosecuted. However, I would argue that at the very least this is also about the means, in particular that people be afforded the means as well. After all you can't have a protected ends without also a protected means to said end (otherwise there really is no end).

Using access of information as an example, means are essential. One cannot protect the end of having access without also protecting the means, ie books, newspapers, media, etc. For example if someone has illegal pornographic material (printed), one does not confiscate a person's right to all printed material. It would almost seem that by protecting the means you are also thereby protecting the end itself. So that is how I would see human rights as opposed to how Cerf see's it. But as stated above even assuming it is about valuing the end one must protect the means as well.

Amnesty International's USA blog also argues against Cerf's characterization of rights. They state, Cerf's criticism is an "exceptionally narrow portrayal of human rights from a legal and philosophical perspective." The blog implies that the characterization is incoherent saying, "while access to the physical town square may not be a human right in isolation, it has always been for most inseparable from the right to association and expression." This is in response to an example made by Cerf, using telephone lines and geographical location. This implies that the freedom to access books/news/internet etc, is really inseparable from the right to freedom of expression and freedom to access information.

It would seem to this person that internet should in fact be recognized as a human right. Being that the internet has already socially transformed the world by making it a far more global community, it seems that now more than ever freedom to access information (of which networks have drastically expanded) and freedom to expression are vital. Being that the internet creates this new global community/forum, it would seem to follow and be inextricable to such rights. Many authoritative powers have started to agree. The UN was only the last in a long line. Countries such as Estonia, France, Costa Rica, Finland, Spain, etc.

I urge you to give your own opinions in the comments below.

You can read another opinion here.


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