[AfrICANN-discuss] Internet Access Is Not a Human Right

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Thu Jan 5 12:38:42 SAST 2012

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right
Published: January 4, 2012

FROM the streets of Tunis to Tahrir Square and beyond, protests around
the world last year were built on the Internet and the many devices
that interact with it. Though the demonstrations thrived because
thousands of people turned out to participate, they could never have
happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to
communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously.

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about
whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The
issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped
down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In
June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a
report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to
declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for
realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts
and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced
Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point:
technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a
high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it
must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy,
meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience.
It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted
category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For
example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a
living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a
living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to
have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes
that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like
freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are
not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular
time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed
as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the
Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil
right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access
is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important —
though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger
one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are
different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law,
not intrinsic to us as human beings.

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right”
to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of
“universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and
electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the
most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are
edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because
ensuring access is a policy made by the government.

Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental
issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support
human and civil rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously
accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and
obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways
to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights.

In this context, engineers have not only a tremendous obligation to
empower users, but also an obligation to ensure the safety of users
online. That means, for example, protecting users from specific harms
like viruses and worms that silently invade their computers.
Technologists should work toward this end.

It is engineers — and our professional associations and
standards-setting bodies like the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers — that create and maintain these new
capabilities. As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology
and its use in society, we must be conscious of our civil
responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.

Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by
which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an
appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection —
without pretending that access itself is such a right.

Vinton G. Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers, is a vice president and chief Internet
evangelist for Google.

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