Should The Internet Be A Human Right?

What would people give up for their internet? Basically every vice a person could have, while jet-setters would even give up fairly essential things like toilets on a flight for a good connection. But does this devotion to the internet mean it should be a human right?

From the legal point of view, access to the web is protected. The UN decreed internet access is a Human Right back in 2011, while more recently the Facebook Like gained Constitutional protection in the US. So in theory, your internet is safe.  But there are more than a few people who feel giving the internet the same level of protection as right to life and freedom is too much.

“Father of the Internet” Vinton G. Cerf wrote a NYTimes Op-Ed in reply the UN’s decree where he claimed, “Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself… It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category.” Cerf points instead to the creators of technology and says it’s up to them to support human and civil rights. And he’s not the only one; in an interview Tim Berners-Lee tentatively agreed with what Cerf was saying. Obviously the piece caused a reaction and various charities including Amnesty and A Human Right took a dim view to Cerf’s opinions, and even Vice too. But even though this was almost two years ago, the debate still comes up.

The Debate In 2014

Google and Facebook have both nailed their colours to the mast and are deploying novel ways to provide internet access to remote places. Google has its balloon-based Project Loon which Bill Gates wasn’t particularly favourable about: "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you," he told Bloomberg.  "When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there's no website that relieves that." It’s a statement that could easily apply to the whole ethos of internet connection as a necessity.

Meanwhile, Facebook has its recently acquired Drone Army. The Wi-Fi providing drones are just one part of the Facebook-backed project, which aims to bridge the digital divide and get the next billion people online. Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement at the time drew plenty of praise and criticism, and later comments about wanting Facebook to be the on-ramp for these people has taken the focus away and soured the argument from human rights to merely one about whether Facebook is trying to take over the world. But you can admire their efforts to make people’s lives better, even if it might be for the wrong reasons.

Access vs. Freedom

For most countries, the internet is embedded into society, and disconnecting it would throw them back to the dark ages. In that sense, there’s no need to protect the internet because it’s so essential and in many cases, difficult to actually do. But when it comes to accessing the web, things can become sketchier.  Sites like Twitter have been the main tool for many protests around the world in recent years, and helped overthrow more than a few governments. So it’s no surprise then that many governments do their best to ban or filter the web to prevent this.

I’m sure if you ask people in places like Cuba, China or North Korea whether they’d rather have internet access or freedom of speech etc., it’s not hard to predict what they’d say. Get that, and then the internet [which all three have in some form or another] becomes a far better place. Despite the sceptical tone, I do think the spread of the internet is a good thing - all the evidence points to internet access being beneficial to people, both on a micro and macro level. But I’m still inclined to agree with Cerf and say the internet is merely an enabler of human rights.

In itself the internet doesn’t provide any of the basic human rights; it just acts as a conduit for others to deliver them. I’m not against providing internet access for rural parts of Africa [or any other area], but in my view it’s more important to protect people’s freedoms. To this end, I think Brazil’s bill to protect Net Neutrality is a far more important step, and TBL’s recent calls for “a global constitution – a bill of rights,” makes far more sense. The world can function without the internet; it did so for a long time. But now that it’s embedded so deeply into everyday life, making sure the internet we do have is open and neutral is the important issue we should be pushing for.

Should the internet or the web be banned? No, of course not. But should the likes of Facebook and an Internet Of Things-connected Fridge or Toaster be enshrined in law? Equally no – they’re commodities. If Facebook didn’t exist, we’d all cope just fine. And if the internet-connected toaster didn’t exist, we’d probably still be ok.

Should the internet be a Human Right? Is an Internet Bill of Rights more important? Comment below.


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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