Debating Internet Rights
Unless you frequently follow the links from our e-mailed Headlines to our website, you may not know that we collect predictions made about communications every year. We thought it would be fun to look back at past predictions and see how accurate they were. And, maybe, we could look at 2012 predictions and make some of our own. But (OK, sure, you’re curious… start here for predictions for 2010 or here for 2011) instead a more serious debate broke out in earnest this week, so we’ll focus on that.
On January 5, the New York Times published an op-ed by Vint Cerf, a co-creator of the TCP/IP standard the Internet is built on and now a Google employee. Cerf’s headline -- Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.
Back in June, a lengthy report released by the United Nations argued that disconnecting individuals from the Internet is a violation of human rights and goes against international law.
As you may know, the United nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration has 30 articles arguing our right to life, liberty and security of person; the prohibition of slavery; rejection of torture; equality before the law; privacy; freedom of movement; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; peaceful assembly and association; democracy; right to work and rest and leisure; education; and other rights. Obviously, we are reminded daily by Headlines how the Internet impacts many of these rights – certainly education, thought, expression, work to name just a few.
Cerf says human rights are those that are intrinsic to us as human beings – something should only be considered a human right if a human needs it to lead a healthy, meaningful life, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. He argues technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.
Cerf points to our historic commitment to universal telephone service as he recognizes civil rights -- conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings – but rejects the argument that the Internet is a civil right either.
While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.
But Cerf concludes that improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.
On January 5, GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram addressed Cerf’s op-ed. Drawing on a commentary by former Cato Institute director Adam Thierer, Ingram notes that 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. Thierer offers two 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?”
Ingram counters that we take a larger risk, however, by NOT calling Internet access a fundamental human right or a civil right because it makes it easier for governments to place restrictions on access or even shut it down entirely. He argues that protections and principles need to be in place that make Internet access available wherever possible — just as we try to make housing and food available to all, not necessarily mansions and high-end restaurants. “Seeing it as a right is an important step towards making it available to as many people as possible,” he concludes.
Interestingly enough, on January 4, the Financial Times ran a piece on the business implications of the Internet and human rights. Facebook was first used for tracking university friends; Twitter, to plan parties. YouTube and Bambuser, a live streaming video service based in Sweden, originally hosted home-made movies. All have become instrumental in facilitating and documenting social movements, from the Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street. Technology companies have accepted these new responsibilities to varying degrees, some begrudgingly reshaping internal policies to account for their wider role in society and a few, such as AnchorFree, interpreting them as a strategic opportunity.
AnchorFree, a free application, had previously been reserved for business travelers surfing the internet from airports and their hotel rooms, encrypts all websites so that e-mail and social networks can be as secure as a bank portal. It also routes internet traffic through its private proxy servers, so, for example, people in Cairo can appear to be using a computer in Germany. AnchorFree responded to the activists in the Middle East as a new client base that needed to be catered to and, in the process, became a poster child among human rights advocates for embracing the unintended uses of technology.
The range of reactions by tech companies is giving rise to fresh tensions between Silicon Valley and international human rights organizations, with rights advocates directing the forces and rhetoric usually reserved for dictators against the technology services being tapped to topple them. They have been calling on chief executives to adapt to activists’ needs and establish human rights policies before crises erupt, and beseeching young start-ups to build human rights considerations into their mission statements.
These Headlines are not in the business of making predictions, but we often look to the past to make sense of current debates.
Adam Thierer’s response to the question of ‘Is the Internet a Human Right?’ reminds us of then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell equating the Digital Divide with the “Mercedes divide." Back in 2001, he said, "I'd like to have one; I can't afford one. I'm not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it's an important social issue. But it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of essentially the socialization of the deployment of the infrastructure.”
Later that year, former National telecommunications and Information Administration head Larry Irving wrote a reply published in the Washington Post. According to Irving, the analogy is specious as the 'Mercedes divide' is a matter of personal choice and ability. In contrast the digital divide is not a choice for most of the nearly 150 million Americans not connected. He goes on to say that those not connected "disproportionately are poor, residents of our rural communities or urban centers, disabled, black, Hispanic, Native American or senior citizens. By belittling the concept of the divide, the chairman detracts from the need for action to assist these Americans." While freeing corporations from the "tyranny" of excessive regulation is laudable, so too is "[o]pening the doors of opportunity for millions of Americans by increasing access to telecommunications and information technologies.”
For years, Charles Benton has been saying that broadband is the essential communications medium of the 21st century. “We are only on the threshold of an information technology revolution if we preserve and strengthen our guarantee of universal, affordable communication access for all Americans,” he wrote in The Hill. Civil right or human right or reliance on the good ol’ marketplace, we should keep our eyes on the ultimate prize in this debate.
- Debating Internet Rights
- Soul searching in Silicon Valley
- Is Internet access a fundamental human right?
- Who Really, Really Invented the Internet?
- Vint Cerf: We Knew What We Were Unleashing on the World
- Internet Access Is Not a Human Right
- Who Really Invented the Internet?
- WCIT is Over. Who Won? Nobody Knows.
- Why Foundations of All Kinds Should Promote Internet Access
- Web anonymity battle starts anew
- Thierer Named PFF President
- Some May Lose Out With Digital TV
- Africa and the Internet: a 21st century human rights issue?
- Civil Rights, Privacy, and Consumer Organizations Call on the FCC to Adopt Key Goals of National Broadband Plan
- Recommendations to the WSIS on Internet Governance