UN Declares Access to Internet a Basic Human Right. What Do You Think?

Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued a report calling access to the Internet a basic human right. Depending on their point of view, people responded to the announcement with either praise or scoffing.

UN in Geneva
United Nations in Geneva by cometstarmoon via Flickr

Earlier this year, Vinton Cerf published an op-ed piece in The New York Times saying, Internet Access Is Not a Human Right. He argued,

. . . technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right.

The BBC ran an interview with Tim Berners-Lee in which he stated it’s “an empowering thing for humanity to be connected at high speed and without borders.” Berners-Lee is on record as considering Internet access a human right.

According to a Digital Spy article on the UNHRC report,

US ambassador Eileen Donahoe told reporters: “It’s the first ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world.”

Let’s Define The Terms

When Mashable reported on this story, many of the commenters there expressed the idea that Internet access was not a basic human right. Many of the comments did not deal with what seems to me to be the key question: Is it legal for a government to criminalize legimate expression if it’s online?

I think a definition of terms would be useful to this discussion. In particular, what exactly the UNHRC is talking about when it says “basic human rights.” Here’s how the UNHRC defines human rights:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

As you can see, their definition is not limited to things like food and shelter, but talks about the fundamental freedoms of individuals. Of special interest in the declaration (and because of recent events like the Arab Spring) the UNHRC took a particular interest in the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In a report from the UNHRC, these are the items considered in, “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.”

1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms;
3. Calls upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries;
4. Encourages special procedures to take these issues into account within their existing mandates, as applicable;
5. Decides to continue its consideration of the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet and in other technologies, as well as of how the Internet can be an important tool for development and for exercising human rights, in accordance with its programme of work.

The full report goes into even more detail about when it is legally allowable to restrict Internet access. Topics like whether access can be blocked by a government if it hears rumors of an uprising are addressed in the full 60+ page report.

Should access to the technology that allows freedom of expression online be classified as a basic human right? What’s your take on this?

[Note: Cross-posted at BlogHer.]

4 thoughts on “UN Declares Access to Internet a Basic Human Right. What Do You Think?”

  1. The main problem is not the words or the idea, but th source, UNHRC. I would never use that group as a basis for anything, since I would not wish to give their legitimazation of dictatorship and persecution any credibility.

    UNHRC has issued reports wher the violence in Syria is a small concern, but the state of freedom in Canada is a cause of “alarm”. They instituted a prize in the name of Moammar Ghaddafi! They neglect the Iranian regime’s persecution of their own people, including censorship of the Net.

    The list of silly and plain evil things that are being said and done by UNHRC, since it is dominated by dictator ruled or dictator sympathetic countries is a long list indeed. Even right now, Syria is being put forth as a candidate member state, and that bid has a really good chance of actually succeeding.

    Of course, the main human rights offender, according to UNHRC is Israel, and even if you are totally pro-palestinian, do you stil think it is a good priority to spend more time dwelling on Israeli oppression, than on every other human rights issue in the world combined? (if you, do, well please go ahead and support UNHRC…)

    Occassionally even a group dominated by bigots, will say something that sounds good and reasonable. However, when that bigotry has reached a certain level, it should be shunned, no matter how sensible the occassional good statement is.

  2. The internet is the only medium right now whereby any individual can express themselves freely and therefore putting restrictions to it is one thing that I can never imagine happening. We already have enough restrictions to follow and this can’t just be one of them.

    1. I wouldn’t say the internet is the “only” medium where we can express ourselves, but it’s certainly proven to be an important one.

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