Of the interwebs and human rights

With a number of nation states declaring that internet access is a fundamental human right, and a UN special rapporteur commenting that cyberspace had “become an indispensable tool for realising a range of human rights”, there has so far been little questioning of the basis for such claims.

The genial old whitebeard dubbed the “father of the internet” has in a New York Times op-ed said that such lofty claims miss the point, and distort the meaning of human rights. In his brief and well-argued article, Vint Cerf, who is employed by Google as a special consultant with a responsibility for internet evangelisation, acknowledges the power of the internet in facilitating communication between individuals and citizen interest groups in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Should internet access be a civil or human right?

Information technology is an enabler of information exchange, and so cannot be regarded as a fundamental human right in itself, which is something intrinsic to us as human beings…

“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.”

It may seem a subtle distinction, but it is an important one, as acknowledged by the UN in a report which, while widely hailed as declaring internet access a human right, argued that the technology was valuable as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. This leads us to ask whether internet access should be considered a civil right: something conferred by law, and not a fundamentally moral issue.

Cerf goes on to say that such philosophical questions should not distract us from practical problems, including the role of technology and technology service providers in supporting human and civil rights. He is referring here to a range of corporate entities from engineering associations responsible for creating and maintaining standards, to commercial search services which may cooperate with undemocratic regimes to the detriment of citizens exercising their rights to free association and dissent, and seeking to protect their privacy and data security.