In “Internet Access is not a Human Right," Vinton G. Serf argues that access to the internet is not a human right. He argues that freedom of speech and freedom of access to information are the rights that should be protected and not a specific piece of technology. I disagree.
Human rights are by definition intrinsic to a person’s humanity. They are not granted by a state; rather, governments have two principal obligations toward human rights: providing the means to enjoy rights and refraining from intervening in one’s enjoyment of them. An example is the right to education. Governments must provide the means (schools, textbooks, curricula) for education; they must also not deny schooling to any child on the basis of race, nationality or immigration status. The rights to freedom of speech and freedom of access to information would be meaningless if they did not protect the means of enjoying them.
Serf’s analogy with the historical importance of a horse to making a living is a good one; it illustrates the changing nature of rights. What is essential to a right today may not be so tomorrow — the internet may one day become a redundant source of information, although this is hard to imagine now. To determine whether something is integral to a right, it is useful to think in the context of the complete denial of it. What would be the consequences of a whole population being indefinitely denied access to the internet? They may be able to communicate by phone, read papers and write books, but they would — by today’s standards — be cut off from the outside world. Political news, scientific discoveries and public health advice would be slow to reach the country and spread to the population. The government and a few companies would control information. The economy, education, science and cultural life would suffer as a result. Freedom of expression and access to information are not only rights in themselves, they are also essential enablers of political, economic and social rights. For a population not to have internet access is today’s equivalent of not having books in the 19th century.
The internet’s power — and the reason that it is menacing to many governments — is that it destroys the hegemony they historically had over the spread of information. It is the most powerful tool in history whose power lies with its users — the public — rather than governments.
Internet access may not be a right that stands on its own, but in 2012 and for the foreseeable future it will be an essential component of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. When the Mubarak regime cut off internet access and cellular networks in Egypt in late January 2011, it did so only for a few days. This had an effect on the ability of demonstrators to communicate widely, and the inability to use mobile phones to call ambulance services has been blamed for the death of some injured demonstrators. People were still able to organize through person-to-person communication and by using landlines but the shutting down of tools of communication was an illegitimate interference by a government in something that it should have no authority over — people’s ability to communicate and express their opinion.
The freedoms of expression and of access to information are not absolute — there may be legitimate reasons for restricting them in very limited cases to protect people from harm, for example restricting children’s access to violent content. Deciding what these exceptions are and when it is legitimate to apply them should be the purview of an independent judiciary. But denying internet access to an entire population or to part of it can never be legitimate.
Governments also have a positive obligation towards internet access. As an essential component of the rights to freedom of expression and of access to information, they must strive to provide widespread access to their populations. In a survey of 27,000 people in 26 countries conducted for the BBC in 2010, 87 percent of users thought internet access should be a “fundamental right of all people.” Yet, more than two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have access to the internet and many of those who do only have low speed access. Internet access should be seen similarly to education, a necessity that should be available to everyone. Like education, internet access should not be controlled by a state/corporate duopoly; communities should be able to establish alternative non-profit, license free, wireless mesh networks.
The private sector also has an important role. In its business decisions, it has a responsibility to not only protect users from harm but also not to contribute to the violation of their rights. For example, corporations should not agree to conditions by governments that allow wholesale denial of internet access or require service providers to pass on information about political dissidents. Business practices, like laws and regulations, must be enshrined in non-discrimination and ensure respect for the privacy of users. Corporations have a clear choice: either give more power to users or more power to governments.
Sherif Elsayed-Ali, an Egyptian human rights activist, is deputy director of global thematic issues at Amnesty International.
Views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Amnesty International.