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Column: Is the internet a human right?

28/07/2011

Intuitively, I am going to have to say, “No”. But that is a gut reaction and one that needs to be more carefully considered.

It just doesn’t make sense to me; a technological tool sitting up there with the revered rights of free speech, freedom from torture, freedom of religion, or dignity.

A human right can broadly be considered to be the freedoms that all people are entitled to regardless of who they are. They are universal and based on what many consider to be natural rights – those standing over and above any state’s laws or constitution. The internet being a technological advancement that was only really publicly available from the early 1990s hardly constituted it being a natural right – something ingrained in our nature as human beings.

Admittedly, the idea that the internet may be such a thing was kind of cool, and maybe in the near future the internet will be so natural to us, but at the moment, I don’t think so. Are you going to tell those poor people fleeing Somalia that the internet is just as important as food and shelter? Are you going to put just as much effort into providing infrastructure for internet as drinking water? Of course not.

As I inspected the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression by Frank La Rue in May 2011 and came to a better understanding of what everyone was kicking up a fuss about I realised the United Nations wasn’t being so silly after all.

My gut told me that everyone having access to the internet, as desirable and beneficial as that is, hardly required sanctions against the government that didn’t provide it. But when you assume that the infrastructure is already available then access to that tool being restricted in whichever way for whatever reason is a different issue which made me sit up.

It is a two-sided approach – access to the infrastructure of the internet or access to the content of the internet. In South Africa especially, we simply can’t be prioritising the laying of infrastructure for the internet. The internet and its infrastructure have no mention in our Constitution so one can hardly expect the government to prioritise its development. But in highly developed nations such as Finland or Estonia, where the infrastructure is readily available, with broadband, they have already enshrined access to the internet as a human right. It makes sense for them to speak of internet as an extension of free speech, as a tool for exercising a whole sleuth of rights, especially those around the expression of opinion or sharing of information.

So if internet speech is a human right, which makes more sense to me than access to the internet tool as such, then we must concern ourselves with access to content as much as we do about government filtering and control. Freedom of browsing and access to information with no imposed restrictions from a government – now that is a human right I can get on board with. And I am not talking about clearly oppressive regimes like North Korea which is a different issue all together, but the United Kingdom which is trying to pass its Digital Economy Bill that will allow them to turn off internet for individuals doing something as harmless as file sharing. Not allowed guys. Crimes need to be punished but not at the expense of infringing on more fundamental rights. That said, the argument is far from over as the European Parliament recently ruled against access to the internet being a fundamental right.

As a tool that goes so much further than any other communication medium that has come before it for enabling free speech – no one should be banned from accessing the internet. The rights of access to information, public participation, and access to justice are essential to sustainable development. Information has been described by many as the oxygen for democracy.

I am still not on board as far as considering it to be a natural human right goes – it is still just a tool for exercising rights. Speech is fundamental but the tool to express it need not be. But how long is it before it will be considered torture to deprive people from the net? Probably not that long. And we’ll do it by remote desktop too.

 

Scott Smith is the online editor at The New Age.  

Email him at scotts@thenewage.co.za or catch him on Twitter @S_P_S 

 

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