Internet access IS a human right

Human Rights

Technology and philosophy have been at the center of more debates lately than ever before. It’s clear that technology is advancing faster than anyone would have imagined a decade ago, while an argument could be made that the philosophies that brought the world this far are starting to regress to less-civilized times. In the question of whether or not internet access is a human right or simply a privilege, technology and philosophy collide dramatically.

The arguments that Vinton G. Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and a prominent computer scientist recognized as a “father of the Internet,” makes in his article titled “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right” are quite compelling. He states that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.”

It’s a “gotcha” statement that sidesteps the perception of those fighting for more internet rights based upon the tremendous role the web played in uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. In essence, his statement and the whole article attempts to reason with supporters of the United Nations report that declares internet access is, indeed, a human right. He acknowledges that the internet was critical but that calling it a human right or even a civil right is taking it too far.

I disagree.

There’s no need to try to redefine what “human rights” are. According to Wikipedia, human rights are “commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.”

This fits in well today just as it fit when the term was introduced in the 18th century. The question really comes down to delivery of rights. Rather than trying to play around with semantics, we should be looking at the results of the last couple of years and make the determination based upon three questions:

  1. Is it possible in the near future to create an infrastructure that would make internet access available to nearly everyone in the world?
  2. Would making internet access available worldwide to the vast majority of people foster positive changes in every culture and every society?
  3. Are those without internet access less able to prosper?

The answer to number 1 is definitely yes, though not without challenges. Number 2 is debatable but recent history would have most leaning towards the affirmative. Number 3 is a personal philosophical question, but again the general perception is also affirmative here.

Technology is an enabler as Cerf states. In many cases, it’s also a right; the two statuses are not mutually exclusive. He uses the example that owning a horse once made making a living easier, where the horse was the enabler and making a living was the human right. Technology is not a horse. The internet is not a horse. Only a small percentage of people owned a horse while a large percentage were able to make a living.

It’s not a coincidence that there seems to be a new uprising against oppression around the world every other month. Oppression isn’t new. The desire to end oppression isn’t new. The ability to organize, communicate, and learn using the internet is the only thing that has been added to the equation. There have been more successful uprisings against powerful government entities in the last two years than in the past 50 years prior.

Downplaying the importance and amazing abilities of the internet to improve the human condition is dangerous. In this case, I’m siding with the United Nations (something that I don’t do very often). Vaulting the internet to the highest plateau as a true human right is the right step towards ending more than just oppression worldwide. It’s a step towards increased opportunity, improved education, and the end of hostilities based upon ignorance. It’s an element much like medicine that should fall into the same category.

As an exercise in comparison, take the words internet access out of the three questions above and replace them with access to medication. Most would agree that access to medication is a human right, but even it has basically the same answers when inserted into those questions.

Number 1: yes, though not without challenges. Number 2: debatable but most would lean towards the affirmative. Number 3: personal with a general perception of affirmative.

The statement that Cerf is trying to make is that technology and the internet are means to an end, not the ends themselves. He’s correct. That doesn’t mean that they should be considered human rights. On the contrary, the discovery that giving people a tool that they can use to dramatically improve their lives should be used to rally support for the goal of giving everyone everywhere the ability to use the most profound technological breakthrough in decades.

If the United Nations declaring that internet access should be a human right is the way to make it a reality, then we shouldn’t be tinkering with the semantics of the statement. We should be striving to make it a reality.

Written by JD Rucker

+JD Rucker is Editor at Soshable, a Social Media Marketing Blog. He is a Christian, a husband, a father, and founder of both Judeo Christian Church and Dealer Authority. He drinks a lot of coffee, usually in the form of a 5-shot espresso over ice. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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  • While I do not always agree with the UN, in this case I have to agree.  For those of us with internet access, the world is open in a way not possible otherwise.  I would suggest that to acoomplish this, however, ultimately we need to accept some governance that ensures political rights online similar to those enjoyed/aspired to offline.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds prtty reasonable to me dude, I like that idea.

  • Anonymous

    I never thought about it liek that dude.
    http://www.Total-Privacy dot US

  •   Anything that costs money for someone else to provide you can’t really be considered a right. If by access they mean you have the right to pay for access and nobody can specifically block you from having access then maybe it could be considered a right.

  • Did the UN Report actually call Internet access a right?  The LA Times blog does in its title, but the actual recommendation just says that it should be “a priority for all states” because it facilitates realizing other human rights.  I believe this is an important mischaracterization.

    You also suggest that Cerf is downplaying the importance of the Internet just because he doesn’t agree that Internet access is a human right.  This is a ridiculous straw-man argument.  In fact, Cerf’s NYT article acknowledges that transformational power of the internet right from the first paragraph, and later compares it to electricity and telephones.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, but NO, it’s not.  You don’t ever have a “right” to someone else’s time, talents, resources, which is what it takes to provide internet access.  That is plain and simple entitlement.  If you want internet access, you have the right to pay for it, just like everyone else.  
    People have gone mad.

  • I think it’s important to make the distinction between the “right to access the internet” which means, if someone wants to sell you internet access, and you want to pay for it, the gov’t can’t prohibit that, versus the “right to internet access” which implies coercing some entity to provide internet access to you. The first thing is arguably a right while the second thing is obviously not. In the U.S. our rights to “free speech” and “freedom of the press” seem to protect the use and provision of internet service, and it would be good to have those kinds of protection worldwide (though I’m not sure the UN is an effective body for promoting that cause).

    • Martin Levac

      My understanding is that a right is defined as a thing which must not be restricted except where the law permits such as with prisoners for example. But then that same law imposes obligations to guarantee the rights to basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, etc.

      From this, we can presume that if access to information is a right, and if the internet is the sole medium that can deliver this information, then it is a right to access the internet for the purpose of access to information, if not for all purposes that the internet can provide. We can even argue that even if the internet is not the sole medium of delivery, if it is restricted arbitrarily by those who control it, it may be an infringement of the right to access to information, if the restriction makes accessing information more difficult than otherwise, or intentionally more difficult for economic reasons for example.

      A monopolistic entity who controls both the internet and the content, such as a vertically integrated corporation for example, could choose to restrict access to the internet in order to force internet users to select its content instead of neutral or independent content.

  • Hey, if you’re willing to pay for the “right” for everyone else to have Internet access, then fine by me. I’m not (so, clearly, I agree with Cerf [this time]). How about electricity? water? sewer? phone service? food? …are they “rights”, too? Internet access is ubiquitous in some places, not so much in others, and not necessarily cheap where it is available. It’s useful and can be important… but it’s not a “human right”.

  • Anonymous

    It is a “tool”.

  • Carlo J. Mejia Chang

    no, it is not.

    people should stop asking for human rights and instead be trying to comply to our human duties.

    • So, explain to everyone the difference between “human rights” and “human duties”.  You can’t have one, without the other.

  • Martin Levac

    A more appropriate comparison is “access to information”, not “access to medication”. Medication can’t be delivered through the internet even if medication can be ordered and paid for through the internet. Information can be delivered through the internet though, that’s its inherent nature. According, it’s easier to argue that we have a right to “access to information” independently of the delivery medium, therefore we have a right to choose whichever medium can deliver this information to us, in this case the internet.

    The alternative is that we consider the internet a privileged delivery medium only accessible by those who control it, thereby restricting access to information, thereby alienating the right to access to information of the person for whom we restrict access to the internet.

    Boolean logic.

  • I think most folks here do not truly understand exactly “what” the Internet is and what is actually enables. Think of it this way, if I restrict your access to Internet today, I can control what content you can consume.  If I can control what content you consume, then, I can shape your thoughts processes and control your outcomes associated with those thoughts processes. Furthermore, if I restrict your access to Internet, I can also control to a very large degree who you communicate with and, I can even isolate you to within your own community.

    Basically, I can control your life.

    Imagine not being able to apply for jobs only advertised on the Internet. Not being able to join social networks to learn about and from others, or to communicate with others. Not be able to attend school online, because I don’t want you to be educated. These are only a few factors that brings into question the “human rights” aspect of the Internet.

    The Internet is no longer a product or service provided. In the last three years, it has eclipsed that notion by far. Now, it is a medium to be protected and restricting access to it can have profound effects on populations both socially and economically.

    If we did any of these things offline (i.e. prevent people from applying for jobs, not allowing them to communicate with others. denying them education, depriving them of economic participation) — then we would all cry “FOUL”.

    Restricting access to the Internet is no different and therefore, it has morphed into a human right, whether we admit to it or not.

  • Anonymous

    For internet to be a human right, electricity, telecommunications, and computers in general must first become a human right.  Internet is nothing without those.  And those are not necessary to be a successful happy human, so the argument fails.

  • You have a right to go earn a living, so you can pay for internet like most people. You dont have a right to have anything given to you. Ever. 

    • Martin Levac

      Prisoners of war, civilian prisoners, anybody under the care of the state. All these people have the right to be given food and water free of charge. But maybe you’re referring to free citizens. Those people too have the right to be given stuff free of charge. For example, you have to right to be given information regarding your rights, free of charge. Ironic in a way.

    • Martin Levac

      Prisoners of war, civilian prisoners, anybody under the care of the state. All these people have the right to be given food and water free of charge. But maybe you’re referring to free citizens. Those people too have the right to be given stuff free of charge. For example, you have to right to be given information regarding your rights, free of charge. Ironic in a way.

  • Ted

    Give a break.  Someones human rights stop at my wallet. 

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