Is Internet Access A Human Right?

The events in Egypt have led some to ask if the mere act of cutting off access to the Internet is, in itself, an human rights violation.

During his nationally televised statement last night on the situation in Egypt, President Obama made the following comment:

The people of Egypt have rights that are universal.  That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny.  These are human rights.  And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.

I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.

The President was referring, of course, to the fact that for most of Friday the nation of Egypt was cut off from the Internet:

Riots and unrest in Egypt have been ongoing all week, but the Internet only seemed to take notice when it affected the Internet. On Friday, news reports revealed that the government had shut down Internet access to its 80 million citizens, also blocking text messaging and mobile services. Access to the outside world was gone, as was the ability to organize protests from within.

Tech blog Mashable.com quickly put up a graphic to help readers visualize the blockage. Online vigilante group Anonymous – most recently in the news for its WikiLeaks hacktivism – threatened to attack the government’s portals, anonymously.

No Internet? It’s a thought so large and abstract as to be nearly unfathomable (How exactly do you “shut down” the Internet? With a giant pair of scissors – snip, snip, snip? Blogs quickly began exploring that question, too.)

Online communities had similar reactions of revulsion in 2007 when the government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) closed off Internet access – images of protesting monks had begun to leak to the outside world; it didn’t look good. Following the Iranian presidential election in 2009, Twitterers worldwide changed their locations to “Tehran” after news broke that the government was cracking down on Iranian Twitter accounts.

The most recent events in Egypt caused some to ponder a question that, on its face, sounds ludicrous: Has society reached the point at which Internet access is a basic human right? Is this public outcry just 21st-century indignation – one born of a world where “social networking” is nearly always something that happens in front of a screen?

Only in a land of First World concerns could the lack of Internet access be considered a violation of basic rights. They have no bread? Let them eat Google.

That last point is something worth considering. The protests in Egypt aren’t just political in nature, there are also deep, ongoing economic problems in the country, most especially the fact that the cost-of-living for the average Egyptian has skyrocketed in recent years.  Like most nations in the Middle East, Egypt is far from a free market economy so when the people have economic discontent it quickly becomes political discontent. In the long run, I’d imagine Egyptians are more concerned about the cost of housing and the fact that there’s high unemployment than they are about whether or not they can access Facebook.

Nonetheless, Egypt’s actions against the Internet and the attention it has received raise interesting questions:

It’s not the loss of Flickr pages and Tumblogs and Sad Keanus that constitutes human rights abuse. Not really. “It’s the idea of freedom of expression and information that’s a human right,” says Arvind Ganesan, who has researched Internet censorship as the director of business and human rights at the Human Rights Watch. It’s right there in Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The chilling aspect of an Internet clampdown is the assumption that lies behind it: If you will not let your people tweet, what else will you not let them do?

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve changed our media environment to strongly emphasize on-the-ground, eyewitness voices,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “It feels very strange not to be able to check a broadcast report for ‘authentic’ voices from on the ground.”

The modern Internet has made us untrustworthy of sources that are too “official.” Shutting it down causes one to recall nearly extinct Iron Curtain oppression: the misinformation, the not-knowing, letters being secreted across borders at risk of imprisonment. This outrage over the Egyptians losing their Internet access isn’t a new thing at all. Or, as says Chris Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “The point is not that the Internet has become sacred. The point is that human rights have always been sacred.”

Does this mean that Internet access, or at least the ability to access the internet should be considered a human right in some sense? During the Cold War, the United States protested the Soviet Union’s actions in denying their people access to information from the outside world, perhaps this is just a 21st century extension of that idea.

Photo via The Daily Dish

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Teresa says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call Internet access a “human right.” However, I feel that the gov’t has no right to prevent people from accessing it. If people want to use their own $$ to purchase it, they should be free to do so.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I did the same kind of double-take when I heard that and noticed the way access just sort of slid into the list of rights in discussions both before and after.

    Cool.

    The rights of the people to assemble, to speak, to petition: we do all that online.

    Then, of course, when a military or Islamist regime takes over in Egypt they’ll put an end to all that.

  3. Michael says:

    Does this mean that Internet access, or at least the ability to access the internet should be considered a human right in some sense.

    It’s not so much the Internet itself as it is the information that it contains and communication that it allows.

  4. I am not ready to take a definitive position on this at the moment, but the following occurs to me: if a government confiscated all the printing presses or controlled all the ink, but still allowed the distribution of printed material, would we not state that they were abridging freedom if the press?

    Or, it seems to me that cutting off the Internet and/ or cell service these days is as bad, if not worse, than shutting down the TV or radio transmitters of opposition broadcasters

  5. Steve,

    The printing press and signal jamming analogies are exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote this.

  6. Jane says:

    You can get lost in the definition of human right, or you can ask yourself, do governments have an obligation to provide citizens with essential utilities…heat, power, water, communications? Yes, they do. And with the advances and fundamental changes in communications, internet access is one of those essential services.

  7. James Joyner says:

    This is a positive vs negative rights debate, methinks.

    The printing press analogy is the right one. And government has no duty to provide me a printing press. But they abridge my human rights when they deny me access to one in order to stifle my speech.

    Similarly, the government has no duty to provide me with Internet access or to send traffic to my blog. (I want equal time with those bozos at whitehouse.gov!) But denying me access to it is a violation of my human right to free expression.

  8. legion says:

    More importantly, as public services become more and more net-provided (or in some cases, net-only), Internet access _does_ become a necessary right. Imagine for a moment how difficult life would be if the government denied you a bank account. Even if your job was willing to pay you in cash, how would you pay your bills? Take cash to every utility? What if they close their local office?

    What if the government decided you couldn’t have a phone?

  9. Teresa says:

    James — that’s how I feel as well. Just because something is a right does not mean the gov’t must provide it at no cost. However, it does mean that they cannot prevent you from obtaining it via peaceful means.

    The gov’t does not have to provide me with food, but they cannot prevent me from buying food or growing my own. So in addition to free speech and communication issues, Internet access also involves the right to enter into a voluntary contract with someone else. If someone wishes to sell me Internet access and I want to buy it, the gov’t should not interfere.

  10. TG Chicago says:

    “Like most nations in the Middle East, Egypt is far from a free market economy so when the people have economic discontent it quickly becomes political discontent.”

    Well, yeah. But the US is pretty close to a free market economy, and yet it’s still true that when Americans have economic discontent it quickly becomes political discontent.

  11. Ha says:

    This blog post reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s story, Barrayar, where Cordelia, who is from a technical society enters a more primitive society and is shocked to find that the government has not given free access to something like the Internet. In her society, that’s a basic human right, whereas to the members of the more primitive society, they were more concerned about how to get food and shelter.

  12. jpe says:

    @TG Chicago: what’s striking about America is just how little political discontent is generated by economic turmoil. People get upset, they may change their votes on the margin, but we don’t see riots, most voters stick w/ the party they otherwise identify with, etc.

  13. john personna says:

    I’m offended by the question, actually. It’s a standard right-of-center trick to troll for outrage at new “rights.”

    So why go there? It’s easier to ask if internet access is good, and how countries should handle the risk/rewards of broad access.

    It Lieberman “kill switch” for instance isn’t there to block our democratic dreams, but because we fear cyber war. It’s complicated.

  14. john personna says:

    (I don’t think we have a national electric grid because it is a “right.” It’s just good.)

  15. anjin-san says:

    > I want equal time with those bozos at whitehouse.gov!

    With all due respect James, considering the problems you have had with pretty basic functionality on this site, you might want to think twice before referring to folks who run other sites as “bozos”…

  16. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: Dude, it was a joke. But I’m sure my site would run better with unlimited resources and a tax-payer funded staff.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Ahhhh, humor. Always hard to tell with your Republicans 🙂

    > But I’m sure my site would run better with unlimited resources and a tax-payer funded staff.

    Or a bright 11th grader who knows about those darned internets.