Is Internet access a human right? January 6, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , trackback
Vint Cerf has written an interesting little piece in the New York Times arguing that Internet access is not a human right. He notes that this opinion runs counter to that given recently by a UN special rapporteur and the governments of France and Estonia (and Finland), which have made access a civil right.
(Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons)
Cerf concedes the importance of ‘net access as an enabler for the realization of rights, such as a right to freedom of speech or expression. However, he argues that the ‘net is merely a tool, and so not worthy or eligible for the status of a human right:
… 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.
There is substance to this argument. For example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants mobility rights to each citizen. That is, Canadians are entitled to move about freely within the public realm of the country, particularly for the purpose of changing residence or seeking work. The Charter does not guarantee to citizens any particular means of mobility, such as a road system, a horse, or a car.
However, Cerf may be missing the point. Although the Internet is a technological item, it is not only that. Consider first that the Internet has remained the Internet even though the technology has completely changed (several times) since Cerf and other researchers first invented it. Thus, the Internet should not be identified with this or that set of hardware.
I made a casual statement about how “technology is a tool.” It’s an innocuous phrase that has been uttered by millions of technocrats at one time or another.
But Graham looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Andrew, I have to disagree with you. IP is a social contract, not a tool.”
The instant he said it, I knew it was true, and I realized I had missed an important piece of the puzzle. IP (Internet Protocol) is a relatively simple set of rules used by all the individual networks that comprise the “Internet.” The IP rules work only because individual network operators have informally agreed to abide by them for the last twenty years or so–an informal social contract.
On this view, the Internet is not a particular collection of gadgetry but an item that obeys a protocol or agreement about how such gadgets should interact. Adhering to the agreement or contract is what makes something the Internet, not its momentary physical configuration.
In that case, a right of Internet access is not a right to access a particular collection of hardware. Instead, it is a right of access to a certain form of communication, regardless of the exact means.
Perhaps, then, Cerf’s concern is unfounded. Those who advocate a right of Internet access are not trying to force the government to guarantee each citizen a horse. Instead, they are advocating that governments guarantee each citizen some opportunity to communicate via the ‘net. This notion is not then as crazy as Cerf makes it sound. After all, access to the ‘net is overtaking traditional rights, such as freedom of assembly and mobility. If you have ‘net access, then your need to go to a particular location to discuss current events or to seek work is diminished. If ‘net access is rising to a par with access to public spaces and to other provinces, then surely it deserves serious consideration as a civic right.