A packed workshop room brought people together to discuss whether Internet access should be a human right. The Internet has increasingly become a fundamental medium for trade, education, government-citizen interaction, as well as individual communication needs. However, while one third of the world uses the Internet, two thirds still lacks the capability to do so, especially in developing countries.
These trends pose the question of whether Internet access is merely a luxury, or in fact something every individual must be able to attain. A survey conducted by the BBC in 2010 asserted that 79% of those polled around the world believed that Internet access should be a human right. Some countries, such as Estonia, Spain and Finland, have legislated that all their citizens are entitled to access the Internet, sometimes even with broadband connectivity. At the same time, other countries have taken measures to enable cutting off people’s Internet access, either by operating a centralized ‘kill switch’, or as a penalty for Internet users found in repeated violation of intellectual property rights.
This workshop, moderated by Brett Solomon of the digital rights movement Access, brought together technologists, policymakers, corporate representatives and civil society representatives, to address this question.
Allon Bar of the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition laid out four key dimensions of this issue to keep in mind. (1) May individuals be denied/deprived of an Internet connection?; (2) Do states have an obligation to ensure every individual can access the Internet? The other dimensions related to whether Internet access is meaningful: (3) To what kind of Internet are people connecting to (is the content, for example, heavily censored)?; and (4) How do people access the Internet (do they use public facilities, is it affordable, can people with disabilities access it, etc.)?
Vint Cerf, a key architect of the Internet and Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, does not believe governments should be obliged to ensure that everyone has Internet access. A medium, so stated Mr. Cerf, should not be singled out to receive the status of a right. On the other hand, it is a human rights issue if people are denied Internet access, and the goal of providing Internet access should be supported, e.g. through universal access programs. In the end, in order to provide everyone with Internet access, all we have to do is “get busy and do it.”
Alice Munya of the Kenyan government made it clear that Kenyan people likely consider Internet access a human right. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications, followed up by saying how important technology is to Kenyans. For example, connectivity problems in Kenya have serious financial consequences for its mobile payment system. The Kenyan government intends to extend 1 Megabit Internet access to all Kenyan households in two or three years from now. While Mr. Ndemo did not go as far as saying Internet access should be a recognized separate human right, he did comment that the disparity in access is a serious human rights issue.
Elvin Mejidov, a consultant on democracy and public policy in Azerbaijan, asserted that with Internet access being crucial to many people’s socio-economic development, and a key facilitator of the right to seek and check information, it is indeed an emerging human right that may well soon find its way into legal documents. Internet without access to it has no value. Also, it is key to not only have access, but to educate people about how to use the Internet.
Richard Allan of Facebook said that in his view the current international human rights framework has come about as a response to historical shock occurrences. If we were to draw up the human rights instruments today, undoubtedly it would include references to Internet or communication technologies. For many people, exercising their rights, such as their social-economic rights, nowadays involves the Internet.
The impassionate pleas of commenters from the audience testified to the importance that the Internet has to them, and their interest in protecting it. Concerns about inconsistent Internet connectivity at the IGF itself raised jokes among the attendants about whether their rights were being trampled on. An interesting debate ensued about characterizing Internet access as positive right rather than a negative right to not be censored or denied. Questions from the audience pressed the panelists on the positive obligations from governments that would be required if access were to be a positive right.
A lawyer in the audience questioned whether establishing Internet access as a right would not cheapen human rights, while a civil society participant said recognizing access as a right would give great advocacy impetus to obtain universal Internet access. Several audience members stressed the importance of Internet access not as a separate right, but as an enabler of other key rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, as well as a facilitator of obtaining socio-economic development and gender equality.
According to one member of the audience, lack of Internet access is tantamount to lack of access to education or health care; “it is very difficult to function in society today to get a job, to get health information, to travel, without Internet access.” As a consequence, governments should at the minimum ensure access to the Internet for their citizens.
For some, establishing access as a right would ensure that the Internet would be open, while Mr. Cerf on the panel and others in the audience noted that inviting governments to play a larger role in providing Internet access could also have negative implication for freedom of expression online. It would take something that has been created through collaboration between the technical community, private sector, and civil society, and put it in the hands of government. This could mean that “the government decides that it is going to provide you with its version of whatever that access is,” which is not always an open Internet.
A remote participant thus voiced his concern about having obtained Internet access, but dealing with circumstances where a government heavily censors. One contributor in the audience similarly stressed the intrinsic link between Internet access and the sort of Internet (content) to which access is obtained, as she protested a violation of her perceived right to access, when Google prevented Pakistani users from accessing a controversial film on YouTube recently. Both the Google and Facebook representative on the panel compared the Internet services they offer to guest services in a hotel: you can do certain things as a guest, but the hotel manager makes the rules.
Aside from debating what a human right is, and if Internet access fits such a label, several participants discussed the potential of qualifying it as such may have. One person in the audience underlined that recognizing Internet access as a human right would mean that every individual “can access all of the rest of those rights because of the fact that they can share information, their freedom of expression and more importantly they can access data relating to problems that face them.” Others pointed out the potential it offers for people with disabilities to obtain “equal access in society”.
As one audience member argued, rights are different things to different people: “To lawyers it is about law, to activists it is about something you mobilize and really get people to think about change and to some people it is really a matter of life and death.” With the Internet, in the words of the moderator, in many ways ‘being’ education, health care and maybe all the rights, it can be an overarching right.