In his article published last Friday on the Forbes website, Shel Israel responded to the Obama administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights by saying, “The White House is… correct, that the issue is how basic, self-evident human rights get transferred from the tangible world onto the Internet.” He includes his own “Online User Manifesto,” which he wrote last summer. The manifesto starts out with the assertion that, “We the people of the internet have certain inalienable rights, which you the online site provider cannot remove or diminish. We were born with these rights and do not relinquish them when we go online.”
Although there is a wide range of opinion represented in these conversations regarding how to navigate human rights in a digital world, the overwhelming majority of people agree with Israel’s tenet that human rights are not forfeited when a person logs on. Discussions center on logistics, particulars, technical tools, methods of enforcement, etc. The Global Network Initiative, which Google is a member of, ironically, has attempted to set up guidelines based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which I will discuss more later), to answer some of the questions of how rights should get transferred from the physical world into the digital realm.
So, we all basically agree that Internet users retain their human rights. So, we have some arguments about how to make this a reality, and to what extent companies and the government should play a role in the process. However, what comes up from time to time but is largely missing from the conversation is whether Internet access itself is a human right. It’s not as much of a concern to people who just want to electronically shop til they drop or play Farmville without sacrificing their personal information. It’s not as much of a concern to companies whose ultimate goal is to make money. And, it’s not as much of a concern to political figures who don’t want to risk being tarred with the brush of socialism for talking about distribution of wealth and resources any more than is absolutely necessary. It’s an issue that’s more controversial and more difficult to approach. And so, the concerns of marginalized populations are not surprisingly marginalized, or all together ignored, in debates over human rights and technology.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document drafted by the United Nations soon after its creation on the heels of World War II, is certainly not adhered to completely by any of the UN’s member nations, either in law or in practice. It is, however, an ideal to which all member nations supposedly aspire. The UN, on its website, states that the declaration is “generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law.” As such, it should hold some sway in human rights arguments. And if we’re using this document as our guide, it seems to me the answer to the question of whether Internet access should be considered a basic human right is laid out pretty clearly in one of my favorites, Article 19:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” –Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The use of the word “frontiers” here is especially exciting for a semanticist like me– it doesn’t seem to matter whether we are discussing geographic borders of nation, economic borders, or technology at the cutting edge, the article states that all people have the right to use “any media” to “seek, receive and impart information.” Not only is information and the ability to obtain and share it a human right, access to the technological medium necessary to do this is a right as well.
In the United States, at least, employment and school applications, government services, customer service, educational materials, and a host of other resources are increasingly housed online. How many times have you walked into a physical location or called a business or service provider on the phone, only to hear, “You can [or have to] do [or find, or get, or change, or order] that online.”? For those with very limited Internet access, or none at all, due to geographic, economic, or educational barriers, this is not only frustrating or inconvenient; it places one more barrier in front of them, makes limits on the possibilities in their lives even more rigid, and pushes them further and further to the margins.
It would be a lie to say that no one is talking about this issue. It comes up particularly when an area or population usually able to access the Internet have, or are threatened with having, their access taken away. Take, for instance, the incident in San Francisco in August 2011, when cell service was cut off in the BART tunnels in an attempt to prevent protests from happening. Not only did this start a conversation about the ethics and Constitutionality of this move at the time, but it has had a lasting impact: Alderman Ricardo Munoz has specifically asked at a Chicago City Council meeting that wireless signals not be stifled during the upcoming G8 summit. Communications blackouts in other countries, such as Syria, have also brought up these issues.
But what about people who have never really had access to begin with? What about when the barrier is not so overtly political, when the government is not explicitly limiting or blocking access? There are people, though to a lesser extent, talking about this, too. Ray Suarez published an article just this last Friday on PBS Newshour’s blog The Rundown called, “Connecting to the Web: Freedom or Human Right?” It focuses on a conference at the Tecnologico de Monterrey called “The Freedom to Communicate.” Suarez cites a statistic that 70% of Mexicans have no Internet access and discusses the various points of view represented at the conference with regards to Internet access as a human right.
Some conference-goers, including Reed Hundt, would disagree with my position. Hundt’s reasoning is that if we consider Internet access a human right, we have to be willing to let governments regulate the Internet, which we have thus far managed to avoid to a large degree, because practically, governments are most often the bodies that defend and enforce human rights through laws and policies. To this, I would say that the problems arising from allowing the government to regulate our digital space, the fact that we would view this as oppressive, reflects more on problems with the government– why do we view involvement of the body that is supposed to serve us and our needs as oppressive?– than it does on problems inherent in deeming all people equally worthy of access to that digital world.
Suarez also discusses the argument of Internet celeb Vint Cerf, who recently wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” Suarez summarizes Cerf’s argument as this: “Connectivity is not a human right, Cerf insist[s], just a means to an end. It’s the ends, like freedom of speech we should be worried about, not the means, which change all the time.” Whether or not this is true about Cerf, his argument sounds like one that would be made by someone unfamiliar with the experience of having no means to an end. How does one exercise a freedom without the means to do so? What good is an end without a way to get there? As the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were savvy enough to foresee, without the medium, the message can not exist. If people have a right to giving and receiving the message, they also have a right to the media.
While the discussions going on all over the world about things like privacy and censorship on the Internet are vital, perhaps we’ve gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. Who gets to participate in these discussions to begin with? Who gets to access the tools that we are debating about? We have the power to decide whether the Internet will become a tool for inclusion or exclusion, and we can start by talking about the realities of access barriers faced by our fellow human beings.
- Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World (White House document)
- Information about the “Freedom to Communicate” conference in Mexico, including a list of speakers and downloadable agenda
- Fellow student Gina Kessler’s blog post on rights to a different kind of access: medical records.
- The U.N., backing me up once again.
- Access: Mobilizing for Global Digital Freedom