Is Internet Access A Human Right?

January 10, 2012

An internet cafe in Istanbul. (UGUR CAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A curious op ed appeared in The New York Times recently, titled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” In this piece—which I read as I do most news and media, via my computer—Vinton Cerf, a “father” of the Internet, makes an argument that despite the critical role of Information Communication Technologies (the internet) in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, access to the Internet is not a human right.

I should note that his right to express himself so is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to… seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The curious bit of his piece though, isn’t the claim that Internet Access is not a human right, but rather the exceptionally narrow portrayal of human rights from a legal and philosophical perspective.

Here’s how human rights work: We have an established body of international law that represents the aspirations of humanity for each human being in realizing their inherent dignity and autonomy. States are obligated under this body of law to enact domestic laws or policies to realize those rights. Simple stuff.

But people, societies, and cultures change. Regimes and systems of governance change. And faster than anything else, technologies change and science produces ever greater knowledge of truth. And that means that policies and interpretation of what human rights guarantee must also change.

As a relevant aside,

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (Article 27 of the UDHR).

In just over a decade, communication technologies have become indispensable to the world’s most marginalized people. Indeed, loss of access would be a mere annoyance to me. In places from Sub-Saharan Africa to the most impoverished communities here in the US, however, loss of access could mean an immediate threat to lives and livelihoods. No, not for me or Mr. Cerf.

And the increasing necessity of internet access for the world’s most impoverished as it relates to health, education, employment, the arts, gender equality—all things we have the right to enjoy means that Information Technologies (yes, the Internet) are inseparable from the rights themselves.

What is the Internet? It is an endless network of people, information, and knowledge. And resting on the architecture of the Internet is a digital public space found in social and professional networking that rivals the richness of any physical town square. And—using Cerf’s logic—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. And denial of access to the town square through curfews, martial law, or emergency rules are tantamount to restriction on association and expression.

The rights enshrined in the UDHR are to be enjoyed by all people, in all places, and at all times. Technological progress will always change how people enjoy their fundamental rights, and require governments and people to reaffirm the inseparability rights, and the methods of enjoyment of those rights.

In a recent UN report—published at the height of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa— Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue acknowledges the pivotal role the internet plays for the exercise of human rights:

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to  enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

I get asked by students more than occasionally: Given that the UDHR and the core human rights covenants prohibit discrimination based on gender or on race, why do we also have CEDAW? Or CERD? (Separate treaties relating to  discrimination against women and racial discrimination).

The simplified answer is: We have them because the original guarantees as elaborated weren’t enough. We have them because our evolving understanding of the rights enshrined in the UDHR required new instruments to guarantee those rights. We have them because someone, somewhere, refused to make the necessary changes to policy or practice to guarantee some segment of the human family the rights they were already guaranteed in the UDHR.

Because someone, somewhere said “that’s not a human right.”

Follow Scott Edwards on Twitter @sxedwards