In June 2011, following the web-organized upheavals of Egypt and Tunisia, the United Nations released a statement declaring that the internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” The 22-page report details the importance of the internet to contemporary social justice movements, and suggests that “ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States.”
Among the UN’s suggestions? Member states must do all that they can to ensure the infrastructure is in place to allow universal internet access. They should include internet literacy curriculum in schools and initiatives need to be in place to allow all members of the population access, including people with disabilities and linguistic minorities. While the report never comes out and says that internet access is, itself, a human right, it’s fairly easy to read between the lines. Some individual nations, notably France and Estonia, have gone so far as to officially make such statements.
However, the “Father of the Internet” and VP of Google, Vinton Cerf, disagrees with this viewpoint. And it’s not for the reasons you might think:
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.
He goes on to explain that freedom of speech and access to information are really the relevant human rights in question. Cerf believes that it’s a mistake to tie these fundamental rights to any particular form of technology, which is a compelling point. He makes the important distinction between internet access as a civil right conferred by the government, rather than a naturally-occurring human right. It’s worth visiting the New York Times and reading Cerf’s argument in full.
What do Care2 readers think? Is the distinction between human and civil rights just semantics? Is Cerf missing the point, or do you think his comments add to the discussion? Do you agree?
Photo by Steve Keys