Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is internet access a human right or a privilege?

There is considerable international discussion at the moment over whether internet access should be recognised as a fundamental human right.

The ability of the internet to allow people to communicate, access education, jobs, participate in democratic processes and to create businesses makes it a powerful force for opportunity. It helps the poor to help themselves out of poverty and the disenfranchised to have a voice.

A growing number of countries around the world have recognised the internet as a fundamental human right. France did so in July 2009 and Finland followed in October, making access to a 1Mb connection a right as an interim step towards making 100Mb access (the proposed speed of the Australian National Broadband Network) a right by 2015. Estonia, known for its forays into internet voting, and Greece have also made internet access a right.

A recent BBC survey of 27,000 people across 26 countries found that 79% of people agreed that internet access should be a human right. An even higher 85% of Australian respondents believed that internet access should be a right and 87% of Chinese respondents held the same view.

The United Nations is also moving slowly towards have internet access declared a universal human right.

Australia hasn't yet made any formal declaration about internet access, but has enshrined in law phone access as a legal right, through the Universal Service Obligation. I've not yet found indications of discussions by Australian governments or courts over whether internet access should also be singled out as a legal right.

So with all these steps occurring internationally, where is the opposition to declaring internet access as a human right?

A number of states around the world are already or are considering restricting internet access through universal censorship or means such as licensing individual internet users. Some states have even shut-down access to entire internet services or arrested bloggers and online commentators in attempts to control access to information and debate.

Commercial interests in a number of countries are pushing for laws that would allow them to require ISPs to cut internet access from households they suspect of information piracy without recourse to existing legal processes.

These approaches could oppose the concept of internet access as a fundamental human right as they may lead to situations where people are denied access to some legitimate online information (mistakenly or deliberately censored) - or could be permanently denied access to the internet altogether.

Both stem from a view of the internet as being primarily a news and entertainment medium without considering the broader uses of the internet as a communications and service delivery medium.

Telephone access is considered a fundamental right in many countries and few filter or block phone conversations based on content (though they may monitor conversations as a law enforcement activity). Telecommunications providers are not generally held responsible for the conversations of their customers and are not usually required to cut access to subscribers if they discuss or conduct illegal activities by phone.

Cutting people off from internet access permanently in response to illegal activity could easily become a life sentence to poverty. These people would be unable to enjoy the same access to services, information and communication as the rest of society, potentially leading to further criminal activity or permanent underprivilege.

The challenge for countries is how to successfully walk the path between open internet access and regulation of illegal material. Making internet access some form of legal or fundamental human right, while still ensuring that copyright owners' rights are respected and illegal online activity can be addressed and contained. Punishing wrong doers, without establishing an underprivileged class.

It will be interesting to see how different nations attempt to solve this over time.

1 comment:

  1. Internet access is similar to other utilities like running water and 24/7 electric power. All have a high economic cost to provide universally. It is fine to denote all these utilities as human rights but will that make a practical difference their supply to all humans on the planet?

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