Internet Access as a Human Right

America’s bias toward “negative” conceptualizations of rights is on full display in Vint Cerf’s opinion piece in the NY Times entitled “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.” Cerf states:

[A] report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

I wish Cerf had seen the excellent presentation at AALS on cyberlaw and the internet kill switch, which was organized by Annemarie Bridy and included fellow bloggers Rob Heverly, Michael Froomkin, and Jack Balkin. As Balkin noted, “new school censorship” is constantly shifting; Cerf’s confidence that abstract categories like “freedom of speech” could identify it all is more blinkered than the rapporteur’s endorsement of concrete modes of realizing communicative autonomy. Heverly drew on the literature of cyborgs to demonstrate how intimately connected personal identities can be with the machines and technologies in which they are embedded. As Julie Cohen argues, we are “networked selves,” and need “greater control over the boundary conditions that govern flows of information to, from, and about” us them.

In any event, I am glad to see that Paul Bernal has taken Cerf on, with the following commentary:

[Cerf] reflects a particularly US perspective on ‘human rights’ – a minimalist approach which emphasises civil and political rights and downplays (or even denies) economic and social rights amongst others. Most of the rest of the world takes a broader view of human rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was introduced in 1966, and has been ratified by the vast majority of the members of the UN – but not by the US. The covenant includes such rights as the right to work, the right to social security, rights to family life, right to health, to education and so forth – and it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that right to internet access might fit within this spectrum.

That Cerf doesn’t see it this way is not surprising given that he is American – but I think his argument is weaker than that. . . . [Cerf also] doesn’t mention privacy, he doesn’t mention freedom from censorship, he doesn’t mention freedom from surveillance – I wish he would, because next after access these are the crucial enablers to human rights, to use his terms. I’d put it in stronger terms myself. I’d say we have rights to privacy online, rights to freedom from censorship, and rights to freedom from surveillance. If you don’t want to call them human rights, that’s fine by me – but right now, right here, in the world that we live in, we need these rights.

It does not surprise me that Cerf works for a US company which, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has exhaustively documented, is not exactly distinguishing itself in terms of cross-cultural sensitivity. Like the “voice of neoliberal God” editorial pose of The Economist magazine, US technologists’ presumptions are wearing thin in a world where the “west is no longer the motor of history.”

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