Issue Report: Is Internet access a human right?

Background and context

Many Internet advocates, countries, and high courts contend that individuals have a fundamental right to Internet access. Countries such as Finland, Estonia, France, and Greece call Internet access a human right, and the BBC found in a March 2010 survey that 87% of internet users felt internet access should be the “fundamental right of all people”. The European Union seems to have ruled against calling it a fundamental right, though, and many other countries as well as the United Nations have refrained from calling it a right. The debate surrounds a number of questions: Is Internet access really all that fundamentally important, or are we simply exaggerating its importance having lost sight of a world without Internet? Is the Internet comparable to other things that some people call “rights”, like the right to expression or the right to an education. Or, should rights be defined more narrowly to include only those things that governments cannot take-away, instead of those things that government must provide? Or, are we referring in this debate to a right to not have Internet cut-off or censored, or are we referring to a positive right of governments to provide universal Internet access? These and other questions are addressed below. This debate has become particularly salient in the context of graduated response laws (three strikes) – introduced by countries such as France, the UK, Ireland, and South Korea – that punish copyright pirates by potentially cutting off their Internet access.

Importance: Is Internet access fundamental in modernity?

Internet access is essential now; must be a right

Cory Doctorow. "Warning to all copyright enforcers: Three strikes and you're out." July 1, 2008

“I mean, it’s not as though internet access is something important right? […] The internet is only that wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press in a single connection. […] It’s only vital to the livelihood, social lives, health, civic engagement, education and leisure of hundreds of millions of people (and growing every day).”

Internet access is essential to other human rights

United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to education and the right to work, which may hinge on Internet access. And, indeed, The European Parliament has ruled that it sees internet access as ‘critical for the practical exercise of a wide array of fundamental rights.'”

Internet access is necessary for right to self expression

Marshall Kirkpatrick. "Is Internet Access a Fundamental Human Right? ReadWriteWeb. June 11, 2009

“Internet access in a time of democratized online publishing may be understood as a contemporary form of the right to self-expression.”

Making Internet a right only benefits society

"The internet as a right." The Guardian. October 24th, 2008

“The internet is a right. […] It’s in their enlightened self-interest. And I will suggest that the WEF Global Agenda Council should catalogue, quantify, and demonstrate that self-interest in terms of the benefit the internet brings a nation in: 1. business – jobs created, efficiencies found, innovation sparked, entrepreneurism supported; 2. education – every human able to search all our digital knowledge, distributed university curricula, the growth of the aggregated education, the pull toward literacy; 3. politics – the ability of citizens to coalesce and act, the increase in involvement in politics, the greater transparency enabled (which some politicians will not think is in their self-interest – but that is precisely why we will want this creed to separate democrats from dictators and the corrupt); 4. government – we have only begun to use connectivity to improve governance in its relationships with constituents and in efficiencies; 4. society – I argue in my book that staying connected may change the nature of relationships for the good – one-to-one and nation-to-nation.”

Statements in favor of a right to Internet access

Jerry Lanier, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, told TechNewsDaily
  • “In the U.S., if we are serious about equality of opportunity, access to the Internet could be strongly defended as a human right.”

If the internet is a right, then drugs should be a right

Sure, the internet is growing daily and became commonplace. However, just because something is a huge part in many people’s lives, does it mean that those things should be regarded as rights? Cell phones for example. Should they become a right. If the internet is a right, then cell phones should be rights because they are more common. Other examples, like cars, or even drugs. Drugs and cars are a huge part of people lives. Just because they’re widespread and is used extensively, doesn’t mean that they should be rights.

Internet access is hugely important, but not a right

Dana Blankenhorn. "The fundamental value of Internet access." ZDNet. May 8th, 2009

“Internet access […] is fundamental to my childrens’ interactions with the world. It defines their economic utility, their ability to learn, even many of their social relationships. […] Enabling that, or disabling that, is not a question of ‘rights,’ but it is fundamental.”

Internet access is not really essential

It is much easier than people think to live without the Internet. People were able to lead happy succesful lives in the past without the Internet, and they are able to do so now as well. While there are certainly luxuries surrounding the use of the Internet, it is excessive to deem it as essential to human life and happiness. It is excessive there to deem it as a fundamental human right on these grounds.

Internet not as important as real rights

Luke Appleby. "The internet is not a right." March 9th, 2010

“In 20 years, will people think having a cell-phone is a human right? An iPhone? A cooked breakfast and a footrub? […] We may think of such trivial things as a fundamental right, but consider the truly impoverished and what is most important to them. The right to vote, the right to liberty and freedom from slavery or the right to elementary education. […] Perhaps it’s time for a reality check, and to re-examine which of our ‘rights’ are truly important.”

No right to means of expression, like Internet

Ed Morrissey. "The Internet, the BBC, and 'rights'" Hot Air. March 8th, 2010

“The right to speak springs from the innate sense of owning one’s self rather than being a property of the state, which means that each individual has the right to their own thoughts and to express them. That right doesn’t extend to publication, however, which is where Toure’s argument runs off the rails. If one wants to get published, then either one has to own the means to publication or pay someone else for the service. After all, no one has the right to confiscate someone else’s printing press in order to get published.”

Internet access is no right, but means of entertainment.

The Internet functions mostly as a means of entertainment, enabling individuals to acquire information and to engage in other activities. How many nights have you stood in front of the PC surfing the net wildly or playing a game? Also there is a lot of free pornografic material that any child who can type his name using a keyboard can access them. No form of entertainment should be made a “right.”

Internet is arguably bad for humanity, not good

Some take for granted the idea that the Internet is good for humanity. Many people argue that it has had many negative impacts. The following Wired magazine article makes this point:

Internet "right" means denying parents' ability to set limits.

Do you want to make a world when a mother tells her child

“you cannot stay on the internet anymore” that she has taken a right from him? Compare taking the right for a home or for education with taking the “right” to access the internet.

Rights defined: Does Web right fit with traditional def of rights?

Internet access is comparable to other modern rights

Marshall Kirkpatrick. "Is Internet Access a Fundamental Human Right? ReadWriteWeb. June 11, 2009

“Here’s a prediction: in five years, a UN convention will enshrine network access as a human right (preemptive strike against naysayers: ‘Human rights’ aren’t only water, food and shelter, they include such ‘nonessentials’ as free speech, education, and privacy). In ten years, we won’t understand how anyone thought it wasn’t a human right.”

Rights are things govts can't take, not things they must give

Matt Asay. "Is Internet access a 'fundamental right'?" CNET. May 6th, 2009

“The Western world is big on rights these days, and seems to forget its responsibilities. Indeed, the interesting thing about the fundamental rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is that they mostly involve keeping government out of the lives of citizens, whereas these new government-granted rights do the opposite: they beg government to get deeply involved with citizens’ lives through taxes and regulation.”

Internet access is a responsibility not a right

Matt Asay. "Is Internet access a 'fundamental right'?" CNET. May 6th, 2009

“I’d therefore turn this discussion on its head, and suggest to Reding and the European Commission: we may choose to shoulder the responsibility for delivering Internet access to Europe and the rest of the world, but let’s term it as a ‘fundamental responsibility,’ and not as a ‘fundamental right.'”

Internet is a luxury, not a right

Robert Lockard. "Internet access a human right?" Eharbor Commerce. October 21, 2009

“Apparently, it’s not an unalienable right to own a car or a house, but somehow it is an essential right for every person to be connected to the Internet. To me, that is faulty logic. We can all work hard to gain access to new tools, like cars, cell phones or the Internet, to make our lives easier, but there is no guarantee we’ll get those things without effort.”

Feasibility: Is providing Internet as a right feasible?

Government subsidies can help achieve universal access.

There is near-universal access to the Internet in many modern democracies. Ensuring that the rest of the population receives broadband connections, or at least the infrastructure that enables individuals to buy broadband anywhere, can be achieved through government subsidization.

Right to Internet may only mean right to avoid govt censorship.

In the event that a right to the Internet is interpreted to mean a “negative right” that prevents governments from censoring online content or cutting individuals off from the Internet, then ensuring the right to the Internet is not resource intensive at all. In fact, constraining government in this way is likely to actually save the government and taxpayers money and resources. In general, it is clearly “feasible”.

Just another problem created

If the internet is a right, not only making it a right would be hard, providing internet access is downright impossible. For example, South Korea is the most internetly connected country in the world, but we only achieved this because of our country’s size (which is big as Indiana). What about poor Africans, or people living in the jungles of the Amazon? What about Chinese people whose internet access is blocked by its government? North Korea, Iran, other countries where internet access is restricted? With today’s unsolvable problems like drugs, there’s no need to create another one.

Internet as "right" forces providing it to mountain cabins

Internet as a “right” impractically forces governments and Internet Service Providers to provide access to remote locations, such as an Island or a mountain top, where isolated individuals may live. This would be unreasonably expensive and force governments to draw resources away from other important programs that need just as much attention if not more as universal Internet access.

Other taxpayers must pay for right to Internet

Matt Asay. "Is Internet access a 'fundamental right'?" CNET. May 6th, 2009

“After all, let’s be honest: if the government assumes Internet access as a fundamental right, it ultimately is granting itself the fundamental right to tax its citizens to pay for it. I don’t feel any burning desire to pay for your “right” to download silly YouTube videos, porn, or even to read this blog, which is what people would do 99.999 percent of the time with their Internet access. None of these is fundamental to freedom or to a happy, fulfilling life (except maybe that last one ;-).”

Calling Internet a right is part of entitlement culture

Matt Asay. "Is Internet access a 'fundamental right'?" CNET. May 6th, 2009

“Wow. We live in such an entitlement culture that we expect to be handed everything, Internet access now included. Does that mean I’m guaranteed fast access, or will dial-up do?”

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