Broadband Internet Access and Human Rights: A Matter of Urgency, Not of Definition

by Kenneth Mallory and DeVan Hankerson on May 11, 2012

Current events around the globe are proving that Internet access allows people to exercise a range of human and civil rights.

An  opinion editorial by highly regarded Internet Scholar Vinton Cerf has sparked debate about whether the definition of human and civil rights can include Internet access. However, the issue of whether Internet access is a human right is not one of definition, but of urgency and priority.

The United Nations’ definition of human rights is commonly understood as the inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled, simply because she or he is a human being. In creating an internationally recognized set of human rights, the UN’s intent was to commit states to safeguarding certain rights in relation to other states in regard to their own citizens.

Human rights, as Cerf points out, value the most basic things that help humanity lead healthy and meaningful lives, such as the right to food and freedom from torture.

Human rights are protected above the sovereignty of nations and as such are a matter of international concern, as well as international interference, where there are human rights violations.  Human rights are not constrained to any particular time, place, or level of technological advancement; in fact, they are transcendent according to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which defines that “they involve all elementary preconditions for a dignified human existence.” According to the UN Charter, human rights are a matter of legitimate international concern.

The urgency behind campaigns aimed at protecting rights provide the context for discussing the status of broadband access around the world.

As technology evolves in American society and many other industrialized nations, broadband Internet is becoming necessary for the pursuit of fundamental human rights.  Indeed, one’s ability to pursue life and liberty is rapidly becoming synonymous with one’s access to the Internet, particularly in industrialized countries.

Cerf asserts that broadband is but a tool and not a right itself, maintaining that the standard for something to be considered a human right is much higher.  However, Cerf and others should consider circumstances where the urgency and imperative for universal broadband access is a matter of civil inclusion.  While Cerf references the philosophical and legal ramifications of elevating Internet access to a human right, he is not as clear about the profoundly devastating consequences for people who lack access.

The debate around whether Internet access should be considered a human right highlights the underlying desire to elevate the issue of broadband access and the societal repercussions for nations that sustain significant disparities among their citizens in adoption and use.

For citizens in the United States, as well as in much of the developed world, lack of access has profoundly negative consequences that we cannot afford to overlook or disregard as minimal—the impact on societies as a whole is enormous. Social and economic differences between the haves and have-nots in the digital age are creating ever-widening gaps. The differences within industrialized nations will soon become as wide as the divide between developed and developing nations.

While the UN, Amnesty International, and several other International Organizations identify the role the Internet plays in enabling the democratization of communication across the globe, Cerf suggests that “improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition.”

Cerf uses an antiquated example to illustrate his point, asserting that in the past, the right to a horse was not the same as the right to make a living. While the comparison is well intended, it misses the mark. Today, the right to work, which encompasses the state’s obligation to guarantee that its people are effectively able to access the marketplace, can be understood differently when the marketplace is digital. Disregarding the problem of Internet access neglects this obligation and leads to higher unemployment. According to a 2010 FCC report, for example, 46 percent of Americans making $20,000 or less per year do not have home broadband access.

The debate around the appropriate category for Internet access is itself counterproductive and clouds the real concern for human rights.  The UN’s statement that the Internet has “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights” signals something powerful—it signifies the legitimate international concern and urgency for providing universal access to the Internet.

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