I’m on a panel at a State Dept. event this week. The panel is about the Net as a human right. Here are some initial thoughts about what I might say, for your kicking-around pleasure:
I count myself as an Internet exceptionalist. Here are three ways I think the Net is unique or close to it: 1. It is the only medium we use for information, communication, and primary sociality. 2. The Internet scales from personal to global in each of those three dimensions (although it’s different at every scale). 3. Unlike most other technology, the Internet isn’t for anything in particular. (This last, by the way, is an argument for preserving Net neutrality.) And I am an exceptionalist not just in regard to the Net as a technology. I believe it is having transformative effects on our cultures, institutions, economies, governments…
Even so, I want this morning to argue against claiming Internet access as a human right. But I want to began with a caveat to that, as well, because I am of at least two minds about this. I happened to have been at the event on January 21, 2010 where Secretary Clinton called on the UN Human Rights Council to adopt five new Internet freedoms: freedom of expression, of worship, from want, from fear, to connect. I was thrilled to hear the Secretary of State express her understanding of the importance — the exceptional importance — of the Internet. And, of course I too want an Internet that is open to all ideas and that is understood to be ours.
There are at least two ways to take the call to claim Net access as a human right. The first is the stronger claim: People have the right to Internet access, just as they have a right to food and shelter. The second expresses qualities of the Internet to which people should have access.
Secretary Clinton seemed to be talking about this second sense of Internet human rights. The first four of her five proposed Net rights, of course, apply existing human rights to the Internet domain. About the fifth, the freedom to connect, she said: “…governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other,” analogizing it to freedom of assembly. I like those five freedoms, but the analogy doesn’t quite work. Everyone has a physical ability to assemble, but not everyone has access to the Net. The right to connect seems more like a right to education or to water — a right that requires a positive action from the government, not a governmental duty to stay out of the way. So, suppose there is no Internet access in your country. Does that count as blocking your right to connect? If the first four Internet freedoms are about the quality of access, like adding to the right to water that the water must be clean and pure, doesn’t that impy that the government has to supply Internet access in the first place, just as it has to supply access to water? This second, weaker sense of access to the Internet as a human right turns out to entail the stronger sense as well.
So, do we want Internet access to be one of those stronger rights, something you can demand of your government? Take a look at the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Freedom from slavery. Freedom from torture. Equal protection under the law. Do we really want to add to that list “The right to have an Internet connection”?
Oh, the practical problems! Would a 28kpbs dial-up connection suffice, or would anything less than, say, 5mbps symmetric be a violation of our human rights? How open and non-discriminatory does the Net access have to be to satisfy our rights as humans? Does Thailand’s blocking of irreverent YouTubes of their king count as a violation of human rights? How about Germany’s preventing eBay from listing Nazi memorabilia? How about the pressure brought onCraigslist to censor its adult services section? If Comcast blocks BitTorrent, can we take it to the UN? We’re having enough trouble getting Net neutrality asserted by the FCC; do we really want to take on making Net neutrality a new human right?
Of course, if we really felt that access to the Net is a human right, we’d take a best-effort stab at the specifics. After all, we can’t really define exactly what the parameters of free speech are, but we still count it as a human right. So, I think it comes down to whether we think the Internet is so exceptional that it should be added to the list of material objects to which we have a fundamental right. So far, the only material objects to which we have asserted rights as humans are tied to our biological nature: food, water, shelter. Other human rights have to do with core human values, such as freedom and the flourishing that education enables. The Net, too, enables a set of interactions and relations that feel truly fundamental to what it means to be human: Communication, creativity, economic activity, free expression, collaborative action, community. So, perhaps the Internet should be the exception, the one piece of non-biologically necessary technology so central to our core values that it is the object of an official human right.
To address this, we need to ask what makes something a human right. Let me suggest two types of justifications.
One useful way to think about human rights is to say that they happen to be where the globe’s nations agree to draw the line. This accords with the origins of the UDHR: In 1946 a group of countries gathered to outlaw behavior that the world agreed was just too awful to countenance, in the face of a world war that was horrible beyond recounting. This line of justification for human rights depends upon a global sense of where to draw the line when it comes to intolerable actions. If lack of Net access starts to strike the world’s governments as being on a par with starving one’s own citizens, then Net access might get added as a human right. We are not at that point yet, however.
Another way to think about human rights is to say that they spring from facts about the nature of being human and even from the nature of being moral in the first place. (Yeah, I know an ought can’t come from an is. We’ll talk later.) There is a right to food and shelter because humans are animals with biological needs. There is a right to education because humans are creatures of the mind. There is a human right to equal justice because of the nature of moral imperatives themselves: behaving morally entails denying special treatment for oneself and for those one happens to prefer. So, what is it about human nature (if I may use such a term) that implies a right to access the Internet? Perhaps that we are social creatures, so there is a right for us to engage with one another. This, for me, is the most convincing argument. But, if the Net fulfills our innate need to be social, so do parks, cafes, and playgrounds, and it would be foolish to demand any of those “technologies” as a human right. Like parks and playgrounds, the Net is a means to fulfilling other rights spelled out in the UDHR. Specifying Internet access as a human right would express how important we think the Net is, but would raise unintended practical, political, and economic issues.
You don’t have to assert something as a fundamental human right to believe that it provides a social good of deep, deep of value. So, I remain an Internet exceptionalist and fanatic. I am all in favor of providing Internet access to the world, preferably for free. (Of course, I’d first want to make sure everyone can read and write, has electricity, has a full belly, and has access to medical care, so that they can use the Net in the first place. Also, so they can live.) Access to an open Internet is an incredible social good. We who have such access should cherish it, use it, spread it, share it, and fight to keep it open. Nevertheless, calling Net access a human right blurs the line between social goods and demandable human rights. That does not bring the Net to the world any faster, and diminishes the effect of claims of genuine human rights.
[LATER that day:] I was thinking about this some more and realized that I’d probably sign a petition to make Internet access a human right. So, you can see that I’m a bit conflicted about this. I’d sign it because I think it’s good to express to the world how important I think Net access is, not because I expect or even want Net access to be a basic human right at this point. Once we’re all fed, employed and medicated, it’d be great to have Net as a human right. Even better, it’d be great to just put up some satellites and take that first step toward free, universal access.