The Internet IS a (Human) Right…

It isn’t often that I find myself disagreeing with something that Vint Cerf, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’ has said, but when I read his much publicised Op Ed piece in the New York Times, I did.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I didn’t like the headline, which stated baldly and boldly that ‘Internet Access is not a Human Right’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with that statement, the piece said a great deal more than that – indeed, the main thrust of the argument was about the importance of the internet, and of internet access, to human rights. Many people will have just read the headline – or even read the many tweets which stated just that headline and a link – and drawn conclusions very different to those which Cerf might like. The headline, of course, may well have been the choice of the editorial team and the New York Times, rather than Cerf himself, but either he was OK with it or he allowed himself to be led in a particular direction.

Secondly, I think the point that he makes leading to this headline, and to his conclusions, reflects a particularly US perspective on ‘human rights’ – a minimalist approach which emphasises civil and political rights and downplays (or even denies) economic and social rights amongst others. Most of the rest of the world takes a broader view of human rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was introduced in 1966, and has been ratified by the vast majority of the members of the UN – but not by the US. The covenant includes such rights as the right to work, the right to social security, rights to family life, right to health, to education and so forth – and it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that right to internet access might fit within this spectrum.

That Cerf doesn’t see it this way is not surprising given that he is American – but I think his argument is weaker than that. In the piece, Cerf’s gives the example of a man not having a right to a horse. He talks about how a horse was at one time crucial to ‘make a living’, and that means that the ‘human right’ isn’t a right to have a horse, but a right to ‘make a living’. However, even that’s based on assumptions to do with our time and system. Do you ‘need’ to ‘make a living’ if your society isn’t based on capitalism? Non-capitalist societies have existed in the past – and indeed exist on small scales in various places around the world today. Can we really assume that they will never exist in the future? It is a bold assumption to make – but not, I think, one that needs to be made.

We need to be very careful about the assumptions we make about any human right – and that, in practice, many of what we consider to be human rights are instrumental, qualified, or contextual rather than absolute, pure and simple. Another example from the legal field: do we have a ‘right to a free trial’ – or a right to justice? Trial by jury may be the best way we know now of assuring justice, but might there not be other ways?

What does this mean? Well, primarily, to me, it means we need to be less ‘purist’ about the terms we use, and more pragmatic – and to understand that we live in a particular time, where particular things matter. Moreover, that the language that is currently used in most parts of the world is one in which the term ‘human right’ has power – and we should not be afraid to use that power. Right now, to flourish in a ‘free’, developed society, internet access is crucial. Perhaps even more to the point, internet access has shown itself to have a potential for liberation even in places less ‘free’ and less ‘developed. I’m not a cyber-utopian – and I fully acknowledge the strengths of the arguments of Morozov about the potential of the internet for control as much as for liberation – but for me that actually makes it even more important that we look at the internet from a rights perspective: if we have a right to internet access then it’s much easier to argue that we have rights (such as privacy rights) while we use the internet, and those rights are critical for supporting the more liberating aspects of the internet.

That’s another thing that disappoints me about Cerf’s Op Ed piece. He doesn’t mention privacy, he doesn’t mention freedom from censorship, he doesn’t mention freedom from surveillance – I wish he would, because next after access these are the crucial enablers to human rights, to use his terms. I’d put it in stronger terms myself. I’d say we have rights to privacy online, rights to freedom from censorship, and rights to freedom from surveillance. If you don’t want to call them human rights, that’s fine by me – but right now, right here, in the world that we live in, we need these rights. The fact that we need them means that we should claim them, and that governments, businesses and yes, engineers, should be doing what they can to ensure that we get them.

Finally, going back to the headline itself I think Cerf and other seminal figures in the history and development of the internet, have got to be careful about not letting themselves be used by those who’d like to restrict internet access and freedom: there are others with very dubious agendas who would like to push the ‘internet access not a human right’ point. When one of the fathers of the internet writes that internet access is not a human right, regardless of the details below, there is a significant chance that it will be latched onto by those who would like to restrict our freedoms, whether to enforce copyright, to ‘fight’ terrorism or online crime, or for other purposes. That is something that we should be careful to avoid.

ADDENDUM (15/1/2012)

There have been a number of other interesting blogs/responses on the subject. Here are links to a few of them:

Adam Wagner’s UK Human Rights Blog
Frank Pasquale on
Amnesty International’s Scott Edwards blog post on HUMAN RIGHTS NOW
Sherif Elsayed-Ali in Egypt Independent

All well worth a read!

12 thoughts on “The Internet IS a (Human) Right…

  1. Good piece, Paul. First, I think it's fair to say that there are rights which are not 'human rights', but which arise from them… (e.g. if you have a right to make a living and a horse is essential to make a living, then the right to a horse might not be unqualified, but it's there nonetheless). One such linkage I find compelling is that you have a human right to self-determination, and therefore to the (increasing) extent that your self-determination risks being constrained by lack of online privacy, you have a right to online privacy. Second, I absolutely agree that when it comes to "online access as a pre-requisite for flourishing", it's the less free and less developed countries that should be our guideline. If we, with the privilege of near-ubiquitous access and comparative freedom, don't take our online rights seriously, the outcome – for us – may be no more than inconvenience. But because of the example we set by our own indifference, for a Syrian protester, or an Afghan women's rights activist, or a Chinese artist, the outcome may be death.

  2. I could argue that almost all human rights actually arise in support of what you call self-determination, and which I would probably describe as 'autonomy' – but whilst it is an interesting philosophical argument, human rights have to be intensely practical as well as philosophical if they're to have any effect on the world…. which is why I would support the idea of internet access as a human right.

  3. As I see it, Internet access supports the right to communication – as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly etc etc etc… The thing for me is that some of the rights can be mutually supportive – the relationships aren't as simple as they may seem on the surface.

  4. I captured some thoughts on "old school" perception of internet access as a faddish luxury, in the fruitily-titled piece: more prosaically, I'd love to know what makes *this* a universal right, rather than roads, phones or other bits of infrastructure. Is it the (impending) democratic disenfranchisement? Is it just the vast wealth of education, self-improvement and job opportunities?What makes *this* so special that it achieves "human right" status?

  5. I like your piece – and to a great extent I agree with it. When I talk about internet access as a human right, I'm not meaning to impose a duty on a government to provide me with access if such access would be particularly expensive or difficult, or if I choose to live in a remote place. The ICESCR talks about 'progressive realisation' of rights, recognising that some rights take longer, require more resources etc…The key point about the right, however, is not about the duty that it might (or might not) impose in terms of providing access – but about the restrictions it should place on any decisions to deny access. Denial of access (blocking etc) should not be arbitrary, and should be only imposed in the most extreme circumstances…I'll write more about what make the net special in terms of right in another blog post – it's a HUGE issue!

  6. That's a great piece Paul! I agree with you 100%.One argument I want to throw in is this – let's put aside the question whether internet access is a human right or not for a moment, and try to answer this other (more practical) question instead: "is the action (by a government) to cut off internet access to a (sub) population or an individual a violation of human rights or not".Two examples, one is that in 2009 around the deadly Xinjiang riot, China authority shut down internet for the region for 10 months; the other is that for many dissidents under house arrest in China (notably Liu Xia, wife of the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, and Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer), they are cut off from the internet.In Vint Cerf's Op Ed, he does state that the "freedom of access to information" is a human right, so I think he would answer "yes" to the question I ask above.

  7. Can an analogy be drawn with Art 12 ECHR? There is a human right to be able to marry but this does not impose an obligation on the State to provide me with a spouse. I think that Patick Birkinshaw has argued that Art 10 right to freedom of expression includes a right to freedom of information. Therefore State interference with access to information is a breach. (I do appreciate that much of the article and comments relate to jurisdictions which are not ECHR signatories, so hope not too off-topic!)

  8. That's an interesting analogy – definitely relevant. It's easy to assume that a 'right' imposes a simple duty to provide. It doesn't – the obligations imposed vary according to the nature of the right, and the way it might be realised.

  9. The fact that so many forms of information has become exclusive to the internet does not conflate "human rights" status to the internet – rather, it strongly suggests that regulation should be adopted to ensure that this information is distributed by other means.

  10. How would you suggest 'regulation' can do such a thing? And what alternative means do you suggest?If you read the piece carefully, you'll see that I'm specifically talking about rights as being relevant to a time and a situation: right now, the internet is effectively ubiquitous, which is what makes the 'rights' argument function. If there are viable alternatives, similarly effective, then the nature of the right changes. Right now, there aren't, but when one emerges…..

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