(No.157) Is access to the Internet a human right?

Go to Report
Workshop Theme: 
Access and Diversity
Theme Question: 

What are the policy challenges around free flow of information, freedom of expression ...... [and other questions]

Concise Description of Workshop: 

Recent developments have made finding an answer to the question of whether there should be a right to access the Internet more pressing. The Internet has increasingly become a fundamental medium for trade, education, government-citizen interaction, as well as individual communication needs. Such centrality poses the question if every individual should have a right to access the Internet.
In his 2011 report to the Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, concluded that Internet access is key to enjoy the right to freedom of expression, and should not only be actively encouraged, but must also never be denied from individuals. In contrast, in a much discussed opinion article in the New York Times in January 2012, Vint Cerf strongly criticized any assertion of a specific technology or medium being given the status of basic 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. A survey conducted by the BBC asserted that 79% of those polled around the world believed Internet access should be a human right. However, some countries, including France and Ireland, allow for Internet users to be cut off from the Internet when found in repeated violation of intellectual property rights. This poses the question whether Internet access is merely a luxury, from which people may be deprived.
Recognizing these national and international developments on a right to access, this workshop brings together technologists, regulators, development experts, and civil society representatives, to address the following questions in the agenda.
1. Panelists discuss

* What are human rights? *
What is the international human rights framework? What are some of the arguments for access to the internet being considered such a right? What are the arguments against?

*Is there a right to Internet access?*
What do national and international law currently say with regard to such a right?
What would be required for such a right to become legally established?

*What would the consequences of adopting Internet access as a human right entail?*
Would establishing such a right help bridge the digital divide? What advantage would a right to access entail for development in the global south?
Would a right to access affect the way national Internet infrastructures are built
Should governments impose Internet connectivity, or is qualitative Internet connectivity better served by market incentives?
What risks are involved in establishing a right to access?

2. Discussion with workshop attendants and remote participants

3. Panelists discuss

*What would a right to Internet access look like?*
What would such a right mean in terms of required content (including network neutrality), speed, universality, anonymity, privacy, and digital literacy?
Would such a right be enshrined as a universal service provision, or by a human right approach?

4. Discussion with workshop attendants and remote participants

Organiser(s) Name: 

Brett Solomon (Access)
Allon Bar (Odyssey / Internet Rights and Principles dynamic coalition)

Submitted Workshop Panelists: 

Vint Cerf, Google (confirmed)
Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (confirmed)
Richard Allan Policy Director, Europe, Facebook (confirmed)
Allon Bar, Odyssey / IRP Coalition (confirmed)
Brett Solomon, Access (confirmed) (--moderator)
Elvin Mejidov, Azerbaijan (confirmed)
Alice Munyua and Bitange Ndemo, Kenyan government (confirmed)

Name of Remote Moderator(s): 
Joseph Steele, Access
Gender Report Card
Please estimate the overall number of women participants present at the session: 
The majority of participants were women
To what extent did the session discuss gender equality and/or women's empowerment?: 
It was mentioned briefly in the presentations and discussions
Please include any comments or recommendations you have on how to improve the inclusion of issues related to gender equality and: 

- by supporting workshop proposals focusing on gender equality.
- by encouraging inclusion of gender equality as subtopics in other workshops.
- by encouraging workshop organizers and participants to think about in what way gender equality does or does not have a part in the topic they are discussing.

Reported by: 
Allon Bar
A brief substantive summary and the main issues that were raised: 

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.

Conclusions and further comments: 

Amongst this audience, a show of hands indicated that participants were divided on whether access to the Internet is a human right. Views shifted during the debate, and more participants supported the statement that Internet access is an emerging human right. In general, there seemed to be a consensus that denying access to the Internet when it is available constitutes a violation of international human rights norms.

It is clear this topic is both much contested. As the Internet continues to grow, so will access to it, and so will entities’ attempts to interfere with it. In discussing this issue, the main question should continue to be: does recognizing Internet access as a human right ultimately promote human well-being?