Internet access as a human right?

Ahmadinejad and Twitter

Photo: Sinistra e Libertà, Flickr, CC

The events taking place in Iran for the past three weeks have made me thinking about this topic. Would the situation in Iran been different if access to the internet was part of the UN’s declaration of human rights?

Isn’t it time to start thinking about internet as a utility, as something that is so integrated and important in life as electricity or access to water? And if we think about internet as an utility, not “just” as entertainment, doesn’t that require some legal changes as well, for example in UN’s declaration of human rights? I’ve written about the same topic in today’s issue of Morgenbladet (in Norwegian, and ironically, you need a subscription to read the article… I’ve decided to make an English version as well because I think this idea should be spread to non-Norwegian readers as well) as well at the Personal Democracy Forum’s blog.

Internet access

Photo: striatic, Flickr, CC

Take a closer look at article 19 in the 61 years old declaration that states that “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.”

Internet has become an crucial medium for freedom of speech supporters all over the world, which as also been magnified by heavy use by the protest movement in Iran. But Iranian authorities are among the toughest regimes in the world in censuring and excluding Iranians from the internet, documentet byOpen Net Initiative’s recent Iran report about internet censorship and filtering, Wall Street Journal’s article about Iranian surveillance supported by equipment from Nokia and Simens, and The Atlantic’s article about Internet Surveillance and Iran: A Primer.

France’s highest court, the Constitutional Court has already declared that access to the internet is a“fundamental human right”. That happened in June, after the court struck down what would have been one of the world’s toughest laws against illegal downloading, also called “three strikes” or Loi Hadopi. In addition, Estonia and Greece have also stated that internet access is a human right.

Iran has developed one of the most advanced surveillance- and filtering systems in the world, in the same league as China, which has advanced internet filters and  demands that every pc in the country should have an inbuilt internet filter by July 1. Through Iranians writing on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, we know that Iranian government have shut down internet access all together for periods, or more commonly, selected sites.

What if internet access was declared a human right? The French Constitutional Court said (in relation to the three-strikes case): “The internet is a fundamental human right that cannot be taken away by anything other than a court of law, only when guilt has been established there”.

Cory Doctorow has already predicted that the a UN convention will enshrine network access as a human right.

This should be a topic at UN’s next General Assembley this fall.

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9 thoughts on “Internet access as a human right?

  1. I see two problems:

    1) The freedom to receive, hold and impart information is already enshrined, regardless of the medium.

    2) The Declaration has no teeth, so it does not matter much to those who restrict the freedom of opinion and steal elections.

  2. Ralf Grahn, I see tons of problems with this suggestion and I’m also aware that the Declaration is not the strongest legal documents there is.

    But still, I think this is an idea to explore.

    It will not take long before most services are moved online , maybe even without an offline presence (voting, banking, news, school registration, public info, etc) and without internet access, you are deprived from those services.

    You may live perfectly well without internet, but it is getting harder.

    I’m of course aware that internet access in developing countries are low, take at look at these statistics. But especially those living in developing countries, under repressive regimes, would benefit particularly from declaring internet access an universal right.

    One could also argue that the internet is not “just another medium”, as it is much richer than the other media (print, radio, television).

    More info relating this topic at the Center for Democracy and Technology (their blog)

  3. Bente,

    I agree with everything you say about the importance of Internet access, unhindered at that.

    Regimes who are afraid of their own peoples restrict access to information at the cost of happiness, societal progress and economic prosperity. China and Iran are only two of the most recent cases in the news.

    In other words, I am all for the aim of your suggestion; only less sure about the means to achieve it.

  4. Funny ting you’re mentioning access to internet as a universal thing. I’ve for years been thinking (and sometimes telling people) that I consider internet as a crucial part of our modern infrastructure (i.e. utility). Thus I would prefer public lines and systems in combination with private service providers. (Guess none of us are alone, thinking along these lines)

    So I agree, implementing access as a human right sounds like a good idea. And when it comes to the means to achieve access for all, I think this is as good a place to start as any. Neither of us holds the means to achieve this goal anyhow. But we do share the idea and the vision. Spreading the word in blogs, newspapers and suggesting it as a topic to the next General Assembly in the UN is definitely a good way to spread the word, and might be able to affect people with the right means if not the declaration of human rights it self.

  5. Bente, I totally agree with you. Freedom of access to the internet is an essential right, without which, we are automatically and by default sidelined from society. Doctorow has this line about how the internet delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press through a single wire, and we have been a hair’s breadth away from giving up the right to cut that wire to multinational copyright holder organisations for the price of three takedown notices.

    So access to the internet – or more broadly, access to tools of communication (I’m also thinking that phone access should be made a human right) is a classic positive freedom in the tradition of the UDHR.

    On a related note, I’ve also been arguing for a few years that we ought to supernationalise Google. The idea that a single company should own what is, to all effects, The Search Engine, is like saying that a single company should own every single cell phone tower in the world. If it weren’t for the newness of it all, the idea would sound nuts.

  6. Martin G, you (and Cory Doctorow) summed it up nicely with these words: Internet delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press through a single wire. That “package” is so important that it needs to be protected as a human right.

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