Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

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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

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