Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

A few days ago, Vint Cerf caused some waves by writing an op-ed in the New York Times exploring the question of whether Internet access should be considered a human right. Yes, it is THAT Vint Cerf, generally recognized as one of the founders of the Internet itself. He concludes that it should not be considered a human right, and that we should be careful not to mistake actual human rights like free speech and free assembly, which the Internet certainly helps facilitate, as being on the same level as the enabling technology. The Internet is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Truer words have never been spoken. In the stated context of the Arab Spring protests, people put their lives at risk to protest authoritarian governments and totalitarian dictators and corrupt regimes; not restricted access to Twitter. This isn't to say that restricted Internet access isn't part of the equation - it is - but it's only a symptom of the larger problem, and not the problem itself. We shouldn't lose sight of the forest through the trees.

Perhaps this doesn't seem controversial, but if you read comment threads like this one on Reddit you'll see some strong disagreement. The most valid point made by a dissenter is that Cerf's analogy with the horse is false where he claims that, in traditional terms, owning a horse is not a human right, but making a living is. However, the more apt issue in a contemporary Internet context is whether the government could take away one's right to obtain a horse. In other words, framing the question "Is Internet access a human right?" may lead to a far different answer than framing the same question as "Should the government be able to restrict people's access to information and communication with others?".

Is Internet access a human right? No. But should governments be able to restrict people's access to information and ability to communicate with others whenever they choose? No. Maybe some folks believe these two positions run in conflict with each other, but my reading of Cerf's piece leads me to believe that they do, in fact, support each other. Governments should not be able to restrict people's access to communicative technologies, not because access to those technologies is a human right, but rather because doing so would infringe upon the actual human rights of free speech and free assembly. Those are the big picture rights that Internet access only serves.

People often get carried away with a belief in technology. Heck, Cerf himself currently holds the title at Google of "Chief Internet Evangelist". But it's vital to remember that technology is just a tool to be used in pursuit of other ends. Let's inject a little bit of perspective here.
  

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