Is internet access a human right?

A recent United Nations Human Rights Council report examined the important question of whether internet access is a human right.  

Whilst the Special Rapporteur’s conclusions are nuanced in respect of blocking sites or providing limited access, he is clear that restricting access completely will always be a breach of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of expression.

But not everyone agrees with the United Nations’ conclusion. Vinton Cerf, a so-calledfather of the internet” and a Vice-President at Google, argued in a New York Times editorial that internet access is not a human right:

 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.

See also the excellent post by Paul Barnal:

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I didn’t like the headline, which stated baldly and boldly that ‘Internet Access is not a Human Right’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with that statement, the piece said a great deal more than that …

Secondly, I think the point that he makes leading to this headline, and to his conclusions, reflects a particularly US perspective on ‘human rights’ – a minimalist approach which emphasises civil and political rights and downplays (or even denies) economic and social rights amongst others. … We need to be very careful about the assumptions we make about any human right – and that, in practice, many of what we consider to be human rights are instrumental, qualified, or contextual rather than absolute, pure and simple.

… another thing that disappoints me about Cerf’s Op Ed piece [is that he] doesn’t mention privacy, he doesn’t mention freedom from censorship, he doesn’t mention freedom from surveillance – I wish he would, because next after access these are the crucial enablers to human rights, to use his terms.

Frank Pasquale has also added to this commentary:

I wish Cerf had seen the excellent presentation at AALS on cyberlaw and the internet kill switch, which was organized by Annemarie Bridy and included fellow bloggers Rob Heverly, Michael Froomkin, and Jack Balkin. As Balkin noted, “new school censorship” is constantly shifting; Cerf’s confidence that abstract categories like “freedom of speech” could identify it all is more blinkered than the rapporteur’s endorsement of concrete modes of realizing communicative autonomy. Heverly drew on the literature of cyborgs to demonstrate how intimately connected personal identities can be with the machines and technologies in which they are embedded. As Julie Cohen argues, we are “networked selves,” and need “greater control over the boundary conditions that govern flows of information to, from, and about” us them.

 

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