Google VP: Internet Not a Human Right

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?

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Photo by Steve Keys


Jonathan Baker
Jonathan Baker5 years ago

@Marilyn L You may have overlooked the Second Amendment to our Constitution that explicitly states that ownership of arms IS a right. The amendment has not (yet) been abrogated.

Zuzana K.
Zuzana K6 years ago

Thank you SeattleAnn S. I agree wholeheartedly with your eloquently stated viewpoint, and of that of Cerf.

I would also IMHO add the following:
It seems to me.. incongorious that whilst third world nations like Africa are still struggling with poverty and starvation (thus even such basic rights are difficult to obtain), something like internet is being considered a basic right - it would make even more gaping the already wide gap between developed and developing nations, and it seems it is necessary to ensure that ALL human beings have access to rights already outlined yet not universally existing in practice such as Article 25 "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
Internet seems to me compared to these, a luxury.

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S6 years ago

I just quickly looked through some of the comments and am shocked at how many do not understand at all what Cerf is saying. One of you even went on to reiterate his main point in agreement after saying "it was a load of crap." He explained his point in quite a multi-dimensional way, so it's difficult to understand how so many missed it. I implore some of you to take a debate or logic class please, so that you can make rational arguments that are actually a contribution instead of just looking foolish like the sentence "Does that mean pencils and paper should go to?". Seriously, what ARE you talking about? He is talking about human RIGHTS. Access to information is a human right but the internet is not - it is a tool in which we exercise the right to information. Pencils and paper are NOT listed as a human right - did you really think it was?

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S6 years ago

Leave it to a programming expert to bring sound logic and connections into an argument.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

I agree with Cerf 100%. " is an enabler of rights, not a right itself." Those of you who think we should regulate guns, think of it this way...a gun can be and sometimes is an enable of rights and freedom, it is not and should not be a right itself.

Buzz Anderson
Buzz Anderson6 years ago

Sorry but I read that piece of garbage and I have never seen such a load of crap in my life. Communication such as the internet is indeed a human right. It is indispensable to any and all abilities for humans to survive and thrive. That it is technology means NOTHING other than it is another tool for humans to use to ensure their survival.

For such a comment to be made by one of the innovators of the internet is inexcusable but of course other than that his outfit is more interested in making money off of human misery than ensuring it is a right available to all.

He's wrong.

Jose Ramon Fisher Rodrigu

Google does not have a clean record on this issue. They voluntarily self-censored terms such as "freedom", "democracy", and others from their search engines in China and only turned against the Chinese government when they discovered it was trying to copy their technology and hand it to Baidu.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Barbara S.

Oh, my... not a right? Well, if children are no longer being taught cursive writing, and kids in school need SmartPhones for everything from calculators to getting texts to stay in class because there's a person with a gun on campus, and books are being replaced by laptops, then, pray tell, how does anyone get an education or a job without the right to have access to the internet?!! And now some places are allowing citizens to vote via computer. I'd say Mr. Google needs to re-think his position. After all, Mr. Google helped start this runaway train.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Free speech and expression are human rights- the Internet is another medium. Does that mean pencils and paper should go to?