Is The Internet a Human Right?
A Review and Assessment of Human Rights and the Internet.
It may seem blasé, or more probably naive, in this post dot-com-bust world to still hold out that “information is power” and, moreover, that the Internet is fundamentally different than any previous information technology. Perhaps I am guilty of such sentimentalities, but allow me at least for the sake of argument to hold on to a small hope that the Internet really is something new. It would then be true that information and indeed the Internet—the phenomenon as opposed to the Internet as an enabling tool towards other rights—should be a human right in and of itself. There is an unexplained inequality in commonly accepted formulations of human rights. Freedom of expression is nearly always considered a basic human right; in other words free and unregulated authorship is clearly privileged. However, freedom of readership is not usually accorded an equal footing, without any explanation for its exclusion. In my target book, Human Rights and the Internet, Marshall Conley and Christina Patterson offer a nice turn of phrase for this: “freedom of expression” versus “freedom of impression.” Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does imply some equality in information rights when it states that everyone has the right to “hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” To receive and impart—that sounds like a symmetrical claim of information rights. Internationally, this obligation has been further articulated, expressing the right of all people to communicate freely and effectively, in instruments such as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Is there any force to a claim of symmetric rights to information if I am cut off from flows of information itself? Like the tree that falls alone in the forest, if there is nobody to hear me, or nobody to whom I can listen, then my information right has no force. Thus there arises a need for access to appropriate information technology if I am to have any hope for securing my right to free expression. Thus, appropriate information technology is certainly part of my information right. But what, then, privileges the Internet as one such information technology? We know that the Internet is a powerful tool in the service of various human rights. The deployment of the Internet has been shown to be a tool for such critical objectives as democracy and empowerment. For instance, RAND researchers have shown that, controlling for economic development, the level of Internet connectivity is a strong predictor of levels of democratic attainment (Kedzie 1997). Or, as Audrey Selian (2002) has put it, “it is a reasonable claim to make that the more enhanced the basic communications infrastructure of a county, the more likely this will be conducive to the assertion and manifestation of liberties and rights for the citizenry.” However, I am making a stronger claim, which is that a symmetric information right to some extent requires the Internet, and thus access to the Internet itself has become a human right. In 2002, Internet traffic volume was 180 petabits per day (one petabit equals 1 million gigabits). This is roughly 30 Megabits per day for every person on the planet. This will increase to 5,175 petabits per day by 2007, according to IDC predictions (IDC 2003). These current and projected volumes indicate how the Internet has become the standard mode of distance communication for all media (voice, video, text, etc.). Thus to be excluded from this information technology is, effectively, to be excluded from information all together. Given a claim to information as a universal human right, and my argument that the Internet is more than just an incrementally...
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