Is The Internet A Human Right?


At least, that is what Vint Cerf, of TCP/IP, IEEE, and Google fame, decides in a NY Times op-ed piece. But the idea is subtler than the flame-bait headline; the decidedly less flashy “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself” that appears a couple paragraphs later expresses his position more accurately.

It’s a difficult topic to address, not just because it’s naturally inflammatory, but because it is difficult to pin down what exactly is meant by “right,” and what is meant by “internet.” Without defining terms, any assertion is meaningless. But a little thought seems to exonerate both Cerf’s position and that of the people who take exception to it.

First, consider what is meant by human right, as differentiated from civil right or privilege. A human right is inalienable, fundamental, and emergent from the fact of existing as a human being. That’s not the same as civil rights (which are granted universally by a governing authority) or privileges, which are not guaranteed in any way. To remove a privilege or civil right is to restrict a person from having the same things others may have; to remove a human right is to prevent them from being a human being.

And now, what is the internet? It is simply a means of communication, like the telephone or smoke signals. It is new, it is powerful, but it is not different.

Would you say that by removing a person’s ability to send smoke signals, you are preventing them from achieving the status of humanity? No – you do that by preventing them from having children or getting a basic education, or torturing them, or enslaving them. These are human rights, though it is not a fallacy of scale to compare the idea of the internet to them. The internet is among the most transformative and important developments mankind has ever wrought. But that doesn’t make it a right.

What humans have a right to is free expression and association. A human alone, or gagged, is not a human. But as the revolutionaries last year showed (and continue to show, though less under the public eye), they can use the internet if it is there, or not use it if it is not there, to the same end: free expression and association. The internet is, indeed, an enabler, a tool, and a very important one.

As for its status as a civil right or universal service, that is something that will differ between countries and cultures. But the UN report makes a good point:

…the full guarantee of the right to freedom of expression must be the norm, and any limitation considered as an exception, and that this principle should never be reversed.

In other words, if an authority fails to provide the full set of tools for expression, or restricts them unnecessarily or unreasonably, that is enough to consider them in breach of the promise to provide for basic human rights. This acknowledges both Cerf’s position and the position of others who rightly consider the internet the most important means of communication ever be invented.

So, is the internet a human right? It is our best and most effective way of achieving a universal freedom of expression, and it should be treated as such. But to enshrine it, as others have said, as a human right when it is in fact merely a powerful enabler thereof, is an unnecessary step. Laws and regulations, and things like UN guidelines, should be aimed at enshrining rights in their pure and timeless forms, not in derivative forms, however widespread and important those derivatives may be.