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Summary:

Vint Cerf is one of the fathers of the Internet, but he argues that Internet access shouldn’t be seen as a fundamental human right — simply as a tool that enables other rights. But is this true? And what are the implications if he’s wrong?

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Should Internet access be seen as a fundamental human right, in the same category as the right to free speech or clean drinking water? The United Nations says it should, but in a New York Times  op-ed, one of the fathers of the Internet argues it shouldn’t. Vint Cerf is the co-creator of the TCP/IP standard the global computer network is built on, so when he says something about the impact of the Internet, it’s probably worth paying attention to. But is he right? And what are the implications if he’s wrong?

Cerf’s position is somewhat surprising because, as even he acknowledges in his piece for the NYT, the events of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 reinforced just how powerful internet access can be when it comes to enabling dissidents in places like Egypt and Tunisia to co-ordinate their efforts and bring down authoritarian governments — despite attempts by dictators in those countries to shut down their access. Cerf is also the “chief Internet evangelist” at Google, so it seems a little odd he would be downplaying the need for widespread internet access and the benefits that it brings to society.

Cerf: Access is not a right, but it enables other rights

In a nutshell, Cerf’s argument seems to be that if we define Internet access itself as a right, we are placing the focus on the wrong thing. The ‘Net, he says, is just a technological tool that enables us to exercise other fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech or access to information — and rights should not be awarded to tools, but to the ends that they enable us to reach. As he puts it:

[T]echnology 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.

In the past, says Cerf, we might have seen access to a horse as being a fundamental right in some way, since horses were a requirement for making a living. But the important thing to protect in that equation would be the right to make a living, he says, not necessarily the right to own a horse. Later in his essay, Cerf says a case could be made for seeing access to the Internet as a civil right — that is, a right awarded to us by governments, rather than one that exists inherently in us as human beings — but he shies away from arguing that this should be protected by governments.

One of the arguments against seeing Internet access as a fundamental right is that doing this places all kinds of potential burdens on society — including the potential costs of delivering access to millions or potentially billions of people. Although Cerf doesn’t raise this point, author and former Cato Institute director Adam Thierer makes that case in a post at the Technology Liberation Front, saying anyone who supports Internet access as a right has to answer two important questions: “Who or what pays the bill for classifying the Internet or broadband as a birthright entitlement? [and] what are the potential downsides for competition and innovation from such a move?”

What does seeing access as a right mean?

Thierer argues that not only could ensuring that kind of fundamental right bankrupt governments or societies if followed to its logical conclusion (and should it be just simple access, or is high-speed a right as well?) but that areas where things are determined to be “essential” services often suffer from a lack of competition. In other words, Thierer says, by promoting Internet access for all as a right, governments could actually wind up retarding progress by making it difficult for new entrants to compete:

[C]ompetition often doesn’t develop — or is sometimes prohibited outright — in sectors or for networks that are declared “essential” facilities or technological entitlements. That’s not because they are natural monopolies, rather, it’s because the policies that lawmakers and regulators put in place to ensure universal service ultimately have the counter-productive impact of retarding new entry.

But whether we define Internet access as a fundamental human right or simply a civil right, aren’t we taking a risk by not calling it a right at all? I think we are — and the risk is that it makes it easier for governments to place restrictions on access or even shut it down entirely (a point the United Nations made in its recent report). As JD Rucker notes in a blog post, seeing Internet access as a right is no different from seeing access to medical treatment or clean drinking water as a right. Cars may not be a right, but the ability to move about freely certainly is — and the internet is more like the highway system than it is a car or a horse.

That’s not to say governments have to bankrupt themselves to ensure that everyone has fiber to the curb by their house, only that protections and principles need to be in place that make it available wherever possible — just as we try to make housing and food available to all, not necessarily mansions and high-end restaurants. The Internet is a fundamental method of communication and connection, and is becoming more fundamental all the time, as we’ve seen in the Middle East and elsewhere. Seeing it as a right is an important step towards making it available to as many people as possible.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Ryan Franklin and Ray Dehler

  1. MikeCap (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ Thursday, January 5, 2012

    Maybe the right that needs to be defined is the right to unfettered information. The Internet is a disruptive, decentralized, democratizing set of technologies, but at their core all that they accomplish is distributing information. Regimes want to censor and stifle the flow of information; I think then the essential human right to consider is “freedom of information”.

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    1. Good point, Mike — thanks for the comment. I agree that what we need to protect is more what the internet allows rather than the internet itself, I’m just not sure how to accomplish that.

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    2. Roberto D. Olivares Thursday, January 5, 2012

      Absolutely. My first thought was Internet is not a “fundamental human right”, freedom is, thus, freedom of information is a fundamental human right.

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  2. Great article. I feel like there are so many software options to choose from every day. Right now I can’t get through a day without: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Skype and Bizodo (form builder, project management and CRM in one; http://www.bizodo.com). I know there are other ones too that are great but sometimes I feel like software overload!

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  3. I agree with Cerf. Universal access to the net is not a right. Does that mean I think not everyone should have access to the net? Absolutely not but as the article suggests, by making it a right there is a burden placed on society to provide connectivity. In the workplace, productivity losses can not be fought because an employee can argue that their human rights are being violated.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul, but I don’t think just because something is a right it means the government has to pay for it. The right to a free press doesn’t mean everyone gets a press, only that the government ensures that the right to publish and to engage in free speech is not curtailed unnecessarily.

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  4. Nature will most probably don’t ask anybody about fundamental human rights …

    Is being able to drive a SUV one also ?

    Triste époque

    http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2012/01/peak-everything-return-to-segregation.html

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  5. Jessica Alison Nazar Thursday, January 5, 2012

    If Internet access is a right then does it necessarily have to be provided by civil governments?

    Internet access is not a right in the sense that it should be provided, but it is absolutely a right in the sense that it must be protected. Civil governments should not have the power to restrict access but also shouldn’t be responsible for ensuring it.

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    1. That’s a great way of describing it, Jessica — I think you are correct, in that it needs to be seen as a right so that it can be protected, but not a right that governments have to necessarily provide. Thanks for the comment.

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  6. If internet access is a civil right because it distributes information that enables citizens to be informed, how come a newspaper subscription never was also a civil right?

    At one time, that format was the most comprehensive information distribution system available.

    Could it be that newspaper publishers recognized that ANY government guarantee of access would infringe upon their independence from government interference? Which is what will happen once decrees universal access to the internet a “right.”

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  7. I came straight here after I saw Vint’s column in the NYT today because I felt pretty sure you’d help me clarify my own thinking and that you might reflect my “you’re wrong” knee-jerk reaction. I have to think about this some more, no time right now, though; thanks for this. You might also look at this by Robert David Graham (@ErrataRob): http://erratasec.blogspot.com/2012/01/internet-is-indeed-right.html

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    1. Thanks, Kathy.

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  8. Jose P Isern Comas Thursday, January 5, 2012

    Every human being should have an opportunity to use information society services, ultimate goal “within arm’s reach”. Yes, Internet is more than just technology.

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  9. A couple more: Finland made access to broadband a legal right in 2009: http://www.yle.fi/uutiset/news/2009/10/1mb_broadband_access_becomes_legal_right_1080940.html

    Ditto Spain: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/11/17/spain-telecoms-idUSLH61554320091117

    How is this different from universal service with telephony? Are we splitting hairs? The argument reminds me of driver’s license as “right” or “privilege”. If we consider “rights” those embodied in the Constitution (amendments are part of the Constitution) then we know that “regulation” is possible, think about the “shouting fire in crowded theatre” example of speech rights.

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  10. Richard Bennett Thursday, January 5, 2012

    The United Nations has not declared Internet access a human right, representations by Kravets not withstanding. One “special rapporteur” offered that opinion to the UN, but he was hired to provide them with provocative opinions. There hasn’t been a motion or a vote by the actual body of the UN to make such an assertion.

    Technology companies are not going to back the “human rights” meme because it will inevitably subject them and the Internet economy as a whole to more regulation and scrutiny. See my blog post at High Tech Forum, http://www.hightechforum.org/why-did-vint-cerf-say-that/

    The most interesting part – and the most dangerous one – in Cerf’s essay is his exhortation for technologists to weigh in on tech policy issues from a political perspective rather than a technical one. That’s a recipe for disaster.

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    1. Thanks, Richard — and I agree that one of the reasons why technologists and tech companies might want to avoid the issue is because they are concerned about government control and regulation. Appreciate the comment.

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      1. Richard Bennett Friday, January 6, 2012

        I should add that UN “Special Rapporteurs” are unpaid volunteers.

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