Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

Vinton Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, begins this op-ed by expounding on the importance of the Internet, but concludes that Internet access is not a human right:

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: 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.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

By similar logic, Cerf explains that Internet access is just a tool for obtaining something else more important, and shouldn’t be considered a civil right either (though the case for Internet as a civil right is stronger than that of a human right, he concedes).

Cerf’s argument is in opposition to United Nations, which released a report in June of 2011, citing Internet as a basic human right.

One thought on “Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

  1. He’s very intelligent and parses some important details. But I think he is making a mistake. I’m willing to listen to his rebuttal. But I’m thinking that the more appropriate analogy is that the human right to free speech is exercisable by the mouth, the pen, the gesture. He is saying we can take away the mouth, the pen, the gesture, and the internet because those are the implements or tools by which the right is exercised and those are not the right itself. We might go so far as to take away the brain. It’s just an implement too (of that right). What do you think? I think I would be dead without the internet, the printing press, the ink, the paper, and the brain.

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