Could internet access be a basic human right?

Monday 6 June 2011
CATEGORY: politics / technology
(One comment) / /
United Nations

A UN report has declared internet access a basic human right, rallying against states disconnecting citizens. The UN is backed buy the street. Four out of 5 adults in a BBC survey believed that internet access is indeed a basic right.

But on what basis could this be? If rights are basic and inalienable, how can we suddenly get a new one? As someone I follow on Twitter – Grondwerk – asked:

“What is it about the internet that every human should have?”

Indeed, we have the right information, the right to free speech, the right of free association. That cover’s it no? If I was a Constitutional Justice in a state that recognized a bill of rights, and that state cut off or restricted part of the Internet, I would probably rule it a breach of rights in terms of the aforementioned rights. Done.

Or is it? To answer question properly it might be necessary to consider how the internet is different – if at all – from previous communications technologies. The internet is of course the child of the marriage, no the menage a trois, of the convergence of telecommunications with two other industries, namely media and computing. The result of this union is I would argue different from anything that has come before it, and not merely a sum of those industries’ parts.

In what way is it different? While we previously relied on a free press to disseminate information, anybody can now publish and potentially have a global audience. This is such an incredible thing that we struggle to fully appreciate it. In fact our very speech (Tweets for example) can become published in such a way.

In South Africa at present the government is trying to push a Secrecy Bill through parliament. Any state agency, government department, even a parastatal and your local municipality, would be able to classify public information as secret. Over 1000 institutions would be granted this power. Big sanctions will fall on anybody revealing classified information.

A campaign has been launched – The Right 2 Know Campaign – to counter the Bill. A campaign I support (see the previous link). Except the name is a bit of a misnomer to me. The campaign should have been called the Right to Know and Speak. This law is aimed as much against ordinary whistle blowers, bloggers and citizens – an ever growing threat to states’ ability to control information – as against the media.

Alan Rusbriger, editor of the Guardian, has talked about how the equilibrium of power between states and citizens with regards to information has shifted. This is evidenced by net tools like Wikileaks he says. I agree.

Thus, I’d argue that the right to freedom of speech has become something altogether different. It is now something more powerful – the freedom of the individual to publish.

Some have taken this further and argued that this new world of internet speech is a type of a true Habermasian Public Sphere. From Wikipedia:

The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. It is “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment.” The public sphere can be seen as “a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk” and “a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed”.

This claim that online is the public sphere alludes to one other attribute of the internet that is missing from our original conception of rights – discussion and action working together in tandem. In his book Cognitive Surplus Clay Shirkey catalogues the many ways in which the internet allows people to interact, collaborate and create things together. Often things that were impossible to do – because of economic costs – previously. Wikipedia, Ushahidi, Flickr, Couchsurfing and Lol Cats are but a few examples.

This activity is I think more wide reaching than a right to freely associate. There are many countries where one could freely associate and form groups for a long time, but lacking the net, could not produce ‘public’ goods like Linux, WordPress, KickstarterBribe Spot or Ride Share. And even organising, discussion and action does not describe what we as humans put into and get out of the Internet fully. Often it driven by and is a form of self expression and collective creation, sometimes rolled into one. Do we perhaps need a new right, a right to creation to be added to existing ones?

I am not sure we know yet exactly what it is that the internet is doing to our society and we won’t get a handle for time to come. What we do know is that it is the most significant and empowering force for society, perhaps since the advent of the printing press. It is not only worth protecting. It is worth nurturing.

Related deployments:

  1. Impressions from SA – no alien human interspecies sex

One Response

  1. To me the answer to the question “what is it about the internet that every human being should have?” is that it’s the fact that more and more of the information we need to make informed decisions (personal and political) is being held online.

    To allow market forces to determine which citizens are empowered is a betrayal of democratic principles.

    Beyond the rights issue, I suggest that universal net access is an efficient investment in social development. Contrary to the cliché about leaving such luxuries until all have their fair shares of housing and services, net access can be a tool for getting one’s fair share.