Posted by: John Erickson | April 3, 2012

Is access to the Internet a basic human right?

This morning on my town’s listserv a neighbor quoted an Esotonian colleague who observed (during a recent conference call),

“Internet access is a human right.”

I’m very familiar with this meme but was curious if the right to access communications infrastructure (of any kind) had any official standing.

Although the freedom to participate in communications networks is not specifically mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in June 2011 the UN Human Rights Council did release a report declaring the Internet to be “an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress” and that “facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.” See analysis here and here. You may remember that this caused headlines like “Internet access is a human right” to go around the
world; you may also remember Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s earlier remarks regarding Internet freedom. Here is a powerful excerpt from her statement:

There are many other networks in the world. Some aid in the movement of people or resources, and some facilitate exchanges between individuals with the same work or interests. But the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.

In reading through the UDHR I was a bit surprised that speech is mentioned only once, in the Preamble, as what seems like an aspirational goal, and never in the thirty articles. Does anyone know the history of this omission? When the UDHR was written, was actual freedom of speech too much of a hot button? And, what official status do these UN reports have?

BTW: Vint Cerf, the co-inventor (with Bob Kahn) of the Internet (and current VP at Google), opined in Jan 2012 that while access to the Internet may be an enabler of human rights, access to the Internet itself is not. As I read the UN report and Hillary Clinton’s remarks, I believe the notion of Internet-as-enabler is their larger point, and Vint Cerf is perhaps splitting hairs…

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