Access to the internet and human rights - thanks Vint!

By Joy Liddicoat Publisher: APC     Wellington,

13 January 2012

Dear Vint,

Thanks for the best possible start to 2012 for internet rights advocates. Your New York Times article Internet Access is Not a Human Right sparked a lively debate about the internet, access and human rights. In 2012 we will need this debate more than ever before. While we will vigorously debate some of your points, your call to action for the technical community to take responsibility for human rights is incredibly timely.

Much of the discussion following your article has been about definitions: What is a human right? What is a civil right? What is the internet? What is meant by access? No doubt there has even been some conceptual discussion about “what is a horse” :).

Conversation on various lists turned to the advantages and disadvantages of access to the internet as a human right, the various implications (did this mean internet access should be free?), limits on rights and freedoms, and positive and negative rights. Discussions spanned the centuries from Confucius to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and across a wide range of rights like freedom of expression, privacy, right to information, access to knowledge, and freedom from discrimination.

Cross-regional discussion also followed: What do each of these rights and concepts mean in different countries and regions? Are these rights meaningful if they are not achieved in practice? Is access to the internet more important than access to water or food or medicine or freedom from torture? And if not, can it be a human right? Some ranged into how human rights relate to governments and the implications for multi-stakeholder processes.

Perhaps the discussions reveal more of what we do not know about human rights and their application to the internet. In this regard, I was delighted to see that both you and Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, agree that access to the internet is not a human right, but an enabler of access to human rights (although your article seemed to imply the Special Rapporteur said the opposite). Instead, the Special Rapporteur was clear that in relation to the internet our human rights, including our right to freedom of expression, apply privacy and freedom of association. He also said that governments have an obligation to facilitate access to the internet and that such access has two aspects: access to infrastructure and access to content. While your article focused on the former, the current debates in the United States for the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act tell us that access to content on the internet is now a global issue.

So far many have shared your view that access to the internet is not a human right and agree that access to the internet facilitates a wide range of human rights, including civil and political rights and freedoms. But many have also qualified this, noting that as more and more governments (and corporations) require citizens to be online for basic civic transactions (such as enrolling in schools, accessing government information, banking, filing tax returns, and compiling health information) interference with or denial of access becomes a human rights issue.

At the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi last year, APC held a pre-event on access to the internet. The conclusions of this event showed clearly that access to the internet is a multi-faceted concept including human rights, access to content, access to infrastructure, regulatory policies, privacy, security and more. In relation to ‘universal provision’ we concluded that the best way to ensure universal, affordable access was to take a human rights approach to multi-stakeholder internet governance.

You’ve helped to kick start 2012 with a healthy debate, the quality and depth of which is moving beyond a simple “yes” “no” polemic, to a richer, more nuanced and deeper discussion. While some of this will be very familiar to those who shaped the WSIS and developed the APC Internet Rights Charter and similar documents one thing is clear: The conversation about human rights and the internet is growing and the voices and views are becoming more diverse.

This will be critically important in 2012 for many reasons including the upcoming Human Rights Council Panel on freedom of expression and the internet, the proposed one day United Nations discussion on “enhanced cooperation” in relation to critical internet resources, and the consideration of internet related human rights issues in the Universal Periodic Reviews of Ecuador, India, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines, to name a few.

As to the distinction between civil rights and human rights: international law is clear that civil rights are a subset of human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related instruments. But this distinction is probably about as interesting to lay people as the distinction between TCP and IP – experts know what these mean, but to a lay person, all are just part of the overall system of shared protocols.

And this notion of shared protocols is why your call for engineers and the technical community to take seriously their responsibility for human rights should be strongly supported. In fact, we owe the current openness of the internet to those in the technical community, including you, who hard-baked human rights into internet protocols and other core internet architecture. Thank you. We trust that that we will be able to rely on this community to stand by their history as we face new challenges to the openness of the internet, such as those posed by SOPA and PIPA.

We have called for the technical and engineering community to talk more with human rights advocates precisely for some of the reasons you mention. And there is a lot to talk about including WHOIS policy, IPv6, new technologies and privacy, and much more. But is there shared understanding between the technical community and human rights advocates about human rights, about how these relate to technical issues, or about the current challenges facing the technical and engineering communities?

Let’s keep this important debate going throughout this year and beyond. Join with us to bring the technical and human rights communities together to discuss how we can take these ideas forward together. Human rights need to be at the forefront of any technical or policy discussion, which is why we have suggested that human rights be the main theme of the IGF in 2012.

Joy Liddicoat, for the Association for Progressive Communications

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