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