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Internet Access as a Human Right: The Thin Line between Integrity and Incredulity

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Hannah Shattock



A “Freedom to Connect”?

Calls to make “the right to Internet access” a basic human right have been getting louder and louder in the last decade. In 2016, the United Nations (UN) declared an addition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entitled the “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”.[1] This revision prompted a flurry of articles to proclaim that “the UN has declared Internet access to be a human right”.


The 2016 UN resolution affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”, called on states “to promote digital literacy and to facilitate access to information on the Internet”, and condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access” to online information by states and governments.[2] It did not however declare “access to the Internet” a human right in and of itself.


Whilst no one is disputing that Internet shutdowns during democratic protests violate the human rights of citizens, or that the Internet acts as an enabler to human rights, there are other important considerations that need to be taken when handing out the label itself.


To use a slightly abrasive example to illustrate the semantics of this leap, if access to the Internet is a human right because the Internet is inseparable from freedoms of speech, assembly and expression, by the same vein, should there be a “right to trousers” because access to trousers is inseparable from the right to dignity, privacy, and from degrading treatment? And would human rights continue to be taken seriously if everything that enabled the realisation of natural rights, became rights themselves?


Very few articles on the topic seem to look past the tag-line of human rights, misappropriating the term as a kind of mood-board for “right and wrong”, to ask “is it even useful to make Internet access a human right?”


This article therefore seeks to answer this question by examining key definitions and exploring the difficulty of applying them to the human rights framework. By considering this question in terms of accessibility versus availability, it becomes clear that the 2016 UN report’s use of human rights is, in fact, suitably selective.


In order to properly evaluate the place for Internet access in the international human rights language, we must first clarify what we mean by human rights.


Definitions and usefulness

A key distinction exists between natural and legal rights. Natural rights are those that are universal, fundamental and inalienable, to which every person is entitled simply by virtue of being human. By contrast, legal rights are those that are bestowed onto a person by a given legal system.[3]


It makes little sense to insinuate that Internet access is a natural right given the pace of technological advancement. As Vinton Cerf describes, “at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living” but “today [in urban society], if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it”.[4]


When it comes to legal rights or civil rights, however, there is a much stronger case. Access to the Internet is only becoming more and more entangled with the right to education, gender equality, access to information, political participation, and freedom of expression. Furthermore, civil rights are neither absolute nor immune from constitutional amendments. A “right to broadband” is therefore feasible in this context. For instance, governments understandably intend to reserve the right to restrict the Internet in order to monitor sexual predators or people with known links to terrorist organisations, and even to retain the ability to remove content deemed “problematic in real time before it’s even uploaded”[5] (under a policy called the ‘Christchurch Call’). As a result, a “right to Internet access” would only ever exist as one that can be interfered with when it is necessary to protect the rights of others.

Unfortunately, however, this leaves it up for interpretation. Without exception, governments who conduct Internet shutdowns already quote this reason, claiming that blackouts prevent violations of national security and avoid “permanent loss of life”[6] (the reason Indian officials used to justify the Kashmir blackout in 2019). Furthermore, governments and international bodies who condemn these justifications, already frame their denouncements in the language of human rights.


The Problem

These kinds of internet shutdowns inherently involve totality and draw headlines for it. As a result, popular calls for a “right to access” have been framed most commonly in this context, and consequently, utilise a “sufficiency” model of human rights. In other words, they abide by the trend theorised by Samuel Moyn that the international human rights movement has neglected the goal of equality, settling instead for the pursuit of sufficiency.[7] If sensationalist shutdowns are used as the prototype for the integration of human rights, a “right to broadband” therefore involves a lack of repression, or the availability of the right, rather than the accessibility of it. This means ultimately, that a “right to broadband” would be an ineffective tool in a number of key contexts.


For instance, ONS data suggests that for the 4% of UK adults not connected to the Internet, the main barriers are age and disability.[8] Thus, though a very worthy cause, the Labour Party’s promise in the 2019 general election to provide free broadband to every British household by 2030, does not target the currently ‘offline’ demographic. After all, for barriers such as age and disability, a “right to broadband”, alone, will do little.


Even more concerningly, a wave of insidious techniques of repression is being adopted by governments worldwide. In countries such as Chad, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and Venezuela, authorities block “specific social media or messaging applications”.[9] In Indonesia and Iran, they conduct “Internet throttling” where they intentionally limit bandwidth or speed.[10] This is without even diving into the laws and regulations on the Internet in China, the danger of which became very apparent as information about the coronavirus outbreak was suppressed on social media and citizens were arrested for spreading “false” information.[11] Again, “a right to access”, nurtured from instances of total shutdowns, would fail to capture the complexity of these inherently political conditions, especially when considering parallel policies such as the “Christchurch Call”.


Ultimately, the much less political barriers involved in universalising Internet access, including issues of infrastructure and the costs of implementation, (as well as the availability of electricity and devices), come down to financial and geographical inequalities. Thus, whilst general access should be internationally advocated for, particularly for lower socioeconomic and rural areas, and for women, these issues will struggle to be solved in the language of “right and wrong”.


Hence a “right to broadband” should not be framed as a moral or sufficiency issue, (i.e. “it is morally wrong to restrict the Internet because Internet access is a human right”), as arguably, it would have little practical effect in most contexts worldwide. Instead, if Internet access is to apply to the language of human rights at all, it must be framed in a political way (i.e. “the international community is obliged to make the Internet available to all, regardless of national politics, because the Internet enables human rights”).


A way forward?

When writing this post, I fretted over the potential implications of criticism. Given that I researched the issue and published it online, sceptics might find the argument hypocritical. However, the aim of this article is not to reject, but to refine the place for the Internet within the human rights framework.


The struggle for power at the global level is often framed in moral terms, with actors hesitant to “politicise” global affairs. As a result, I suspect that “a right to Internet access” will serve little practical purpose internationally, and therefore, human rights should only be applied carefully in order to avoid the trivialisation of the concept altogether. Thus, the approach adopted by the UN in 2016, which addressed all states and decreed that “the same rights must be protected online as they are offline”, in fact, offers an appropriate level of interaction between human rights and the Internet. The sensationalism of the media and the exclamation that “the Internet has been declared a human right” is in contrast, misleading- at worst, dangerous.


More generally, it perhaps must be realised that “the global space is already a realm of power politics”, and one in which moral principles “either have no effect” or “mask the realities of power” in global relations.[12] Arguably human rights bodies must “risk the development of more openly partisan enterprises in international affairs”.[13] Perhaps this is the only way forward if human rights are to survive the threat of irrelevance, online and off.


 

Image: Illustration by Matt Chase as used in David Rothkopf, ‘Is Unrestricted Internet Access a Modern Human Right?’ Foreign Policy (2 February 2015) <https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/02/unrestricted-internet-access-human-rights-technology-constitution/> accessed 29 January 2021

[1] Human Rights Council, ‘The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet’ (2016) A/HRC/32/L.20 [2] ibid [3] Dennis Clayson, ‘Natural vs. legal rights: There is a difference’ The Courier (13 March 2011) <https://wcfcourier.com/news/opinion/clayson/natural-vs-legal-rights-there-is-a-difference/article_67be7e3e-4c03-11e0-acde-001cc4c002e0.html> accessed 24 February 2021 [4] Vinton Cerf, ‘Internet Access Is Not a Human Right’ The New York Times (4 January 2012) <https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/opinion/internet-access-is-not-a-human-right.html> accessed 30 January 2021 [5] ‘Shutting Down the Internet to Shut Up Critics’ (Human Rights Watch, 2020) <https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/global-5> accessed 30 January 2021 [6] ibid [7] Samuel Moyn, Not enough: human rights in an unequal world (Belknap Press 2018) 3 [8] Office for National Statistics, ‘Internet Access- households and individuals, Great Britain: 2020’ (7 August 2020)<https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2020/pdf > accessed 31 January 2021. [9] Human Rights Watch (n 5) [10] ibid [11] ‘China Covid-19: How state media and censorship took on coronavirus’ BBC News (29 December 2020) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55355401> accessed 1 February 2021 [12] Samuel Moyn, ‘The Future of Human Rights’ (2014) 11 Sur International Journal on Human Rights 56, 61 [13] ibid



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