Is Internet access a human right? January 6, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
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.
“I’ve been working on the Facebook, all the livelong day” August 9, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Is there a better technological symbol of Canadian nationhood than the railway? Unquestionably, the Canadian Pacific Railway was vital to the foundation of the country, and the image of Lord Strathcona hammering “The Last Spike” is one every school child must encounter at some point in their Canadian history lectures.
E. J. Pratt’s epic poem, “Towards the Last Spike” memorializes the moment, but according to one dissertation Pratt may be the exception to the rule, at least culturally speaking: “Canadian literature has in fact made very little deliberate effort to propagate the idea that the railway is a vital symbol of Canadian unity and identity.”
While investigating this, I was reading R. Douglas Francis’ The Technological Imperative in Canada and came across a remarkable passage describing the Victorian experience of railways, particularly among those who grew up in the pre-rail era:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Stage-coaches, more or less swift, riding-horses, pack-horses, highway-men, knights in armour, Norman invaders, Roman legions, Druids, Ancient Britons painted blue, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your railroad starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of chivalry as well as the Black Prince of Sir Walter Manny. We are of the age of steam.
Could anyone in their mid-thirties or older not read that and think that instead of railroads, we ought to substitute the internet? How easily it can be rewritten to coincide with the opening decade of the 21st century:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Postcards, more or less swift, newspapers, books, the six o’clock news, TV networks, news anchors, hockey on the radio, encyclopedias printed on paper, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your internet starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of fingers smudged with ink as well as Black Prince of Hollinger International. We are of the age of electronics.
The whole thing could possibly be drawn from the Beloit Mindset list, the annual tongue-in-cheek list of common knowledge that an 18 year old entering university or college won’t have. (From this year’s list: “12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.”) The list that probably wouldn’t exist without email (it started as a popular email forward in the late 1990s) but ironically has now been published in a book.
Progress? Everything old is new again? History repeating itself? Or am I just getting old?
Hewers of wood, drawers of water, bloggers of …? July 20, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Establishing a Canadian identity is notoriously difficult. As Northrop Frye once wrote:
One disadvantage of living in Canada is that one is continually called upon to make statements about the Canadian identity, and Canadian identity is an eminently exhaustible subject.
Take for instance, a simple phrase from Harold Innis, who once indicated that we are a nation of “hewers of wood, and drawers of water”. It is part of his staples theory, in which Canada’s cultural, political, and economic history and status can be traced to the extraction and exploitation of resources, including timber, lumber and water, but also beaver fur, cod fish, wheat, and metals. Typically, these natural resources have been exported to either the British or the Americans empires, or both. (It is no coincidence that much of the English-language Canadian identity is wrapped in comparisons and contrasts with the British and Americans.)
Innis was developing these ideas mid 20th century, but I suspect that in these more secular times, most people don’t realize it’s a biblical turn of phrase (from Joshua 9), well worn before the question of Canadian identity might even have appeared, and really not all that positive. In Joshua, to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water (a woodcutter or water carrier) is to be a slave to the community. These are menial tasks that Joshua selected deliberately for a group of people to punish them for an act of deception. In the 18th or 19th century, many writers rejected the label outright, and understood that to be hewer or drawer was, at the very least, to be of the lower class, landless, or to accept a yoke of enslavement to another. Innis was not exactly complementing Canadians, it was a clear observation on Canada’s history as a colony whose role was to deliver the raw materials and resources to sustain industrialization and empires elsewhere.
Nonetheless, it remains a popular, easy expression that resonates. Google offers up many modern uses and variants:
- “Hewers of wood, drawers of subsidy“, from an undated but recent Financial Post article criticizing political policies that would subsidize the traditional resource industries.
- “Hewers of wood, pumpers of oil“, from a 2004 Canadian Auto Workers newsletter describing and criticizing Canada’s role in the modern world as an exporter of natural resources and raw materials for global industries.
- “From Hewers of Wood to Purveyors of Technology“, from a 2010 Federal Government report on Western Economic Diversification encouraging new “high-tech, green tech, petrochemical, or advanced materials manufacturing” in addition to resource-driven activities.
The fuller meaning of the phrase is sometimes lost, but it came across quite literally in an article in the Globe and Mail last month:
Oil, lumber and water are crucial resources, but some of Canada’s most coveted assets in coming years could be sprawling server farms that are cooled with the winter air and hidden away in non-descript buildings from coast-to-coast.
Unfortunately, the original print title “Hewers of wood, storers of data” is not online and one of the least catchy versions of that phrase, but it still caught my eye. And consider how well it captures the relevant aspects of Canada’s natural resources (brrr! it’s cold here!) and the original and somewhat demeaning notion of servant (unadorned facilities designed to process, store and serve data to the rest of the world). Thanks to the internet, the innovation can happen anywhere else in the world. Indeed, as the article notes, over 60% of the Canadian server farm clientele is international.
Would many Canadians identify with this particular crossing of technological and climatological fortune? I don’t know. Certainly, the challenges of long-distance communication were integral to the Canadian identity in the 20th century (consider the role of Anik-A1 with respect to the Canadian North). But what can be said of identity with respect to an “invisible” technology that is physically non-descript and symbolizes the shattering of national borders? We’ll work on some answers in the new STV404 course this fall.
What’s in a name? April 12, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From this weekend’s Spark podcast comes an item from Denmark. The mayor of the Danish city of Århus has proposed to change the city’s name to “Aarhus”. The “Å” symbol was added to Danish in 1955 to replace the older “aa” spelling.
However, the new symbol makes the city difficult for foreigners to find on the Internet. They are not certain how to handle the “Å” at the keyboard, and not all search engines handle it gracefully either.
Opinion is divided about the proposed change. Keeping the “Å” symbol allows the city’s name to retain its uniquely Danish character. Changing to the “Aa” spelling would help to increase the city’s profile internationally. What would you do in this sort of situation?
Another interesting aspect of this story is how technology can sometimes create a pressure to conformity. In this case, the Internet does not happen to easily accommodate the unusual letter “Å” but does accommodate the sequence “Aa”. This disparity places a cost on the use of the unusual letter and so creates an incentive for the citizens of Århus to switch to “Aarhus”. In this case, the price of conformity seems small, and the citizens of Århus may be willing to pay it. However, situations like this raise the question: Under what circumstances should people not have to conform to technological quirks, or suffer the consequences?