Is the internet a human right?

The web since its inception, circa 1990, has: grown quickly; reshaped shopping; and is going to continually change our lives for generations to come through the internet of things and, for example, wearable technology. Is web access a human right? Do we have the right to access the internet?

The internet, a human right?

Moral principles are human rights and are protected by various laws, such as, for instance, the US Constitution or the Human Rights Act (1998) in the UK.

International human rights include: right to life; freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; the right to liberty; right to self determination; freedom of expression; right to work; right to an education; minority rights; group rights; and looking to the future. Not everyone, however, has these rights, for example, North Korea or more recently reported — Syria.

International human rights don't exist

Photo text reads “Human rights are not upheld in many countries”. Copyright of, reused, unedited with citation through Creative Commons Licence.

The internet and human rights

Arguably the internet allows us to express views and political debate through freedom of expression so the internet may be seen as a human right. On the contrary we cannot freely search for information on, for example, search engines because personalisation technology heavily influences results and restricts us in filter bubbles. We are therefore not completely free on the web.

In real life, so to speak, we have the ability to wear what we want and for the most part live where we want to. This is in part freedom of expression. Our clothes are in fact an expression of ourselves. This is not the case online because technology itself influences and controls everything. We are not free on the web.

Wicker and Santoso (2013) examined whether or not the internet was a human right. Despite their work being flawed and inaccurate, since it did not analyse technology itself leaving out, for instance, how personalisation technology restricts us from freely accessing information, or, more broadly, the fact that web search engines are not global search utility programs because we each search for localised or, at least, country specific pieces of information. Their work, however, did make 2 good points:

  1. A Google employee compared the internet and our human right to have online access is not a right because it is rather like a horse years’ ago: Horses were required to make a living but that does not mean that horses are a human right in themselves.
  2. The internet provides a platform in which user’s can effectively particapate in political debate and choices, as well as, practice free speech itself. This is not true since Chinese citizens, for example, cannot access a range of material or have free speech on- and off-line.

The UN passed a motion in Geneva to state that the internet is a basic human right that should be guaranteed by various countries. This does not mean that the internet is a human right, just as the example of the horse above is not a human right. The UN also claim that global warming is real but in fact global warming does not exist because ice caps, for instance, are getting bigger as supposed to shrinking and fading away in the global “heat”.

Look at the whole NSA scandal and you will see that the internet is simply a recording medium that is widely adapted by millions of people within society but this does not mean that the internet is a human right. In fact governments would, arguably, want the internet to be a human right globally to monitor and track even more people online.

The internet should facilitate the right to freedom of assembly. But other laws make such public sphere meetings illegal, for instance, anonymous embraces the right to freedom of assembly, however, this does not make computer hacking, through unauthorised access, a legal activity.

Do you think the internet is a human right? Should human rights only be human rights if the whole globe can express them? Tweet Gerald.

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  • Lederer, A.L. Maupin, D.J. Sena, M.P. and Zhuang, Y. (2000) The technology acceptance model and the World Wide Web. Decision Support Systems. 29(2000) pp. 269–282
  • Smith, R.K.M. (2007) Textbook on International Human Rights. 3rd edition. United States: Oxford University Press.
  • Wicker, S.B. and Santoso, S.M. (2013) Viewpoint: Access to the Internet Is a Human Right. Viewpoints. 56(6) pp. 43–46
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