Internet Access as a Right – a Response to an Article in New York Times

This is a response to Vinton G. Cerf's article on 'Internet Access is Not a Human Right'

Two (very different) kinds of people have opposed terming access to the Internet as a human right. One category is of technology/ Internet-enthusiasts who otherwise argue so much about how the Internet has fundamentally transformed the world and so on. The other kind are among those who work with issues of development and poverty and find it a bit far-fetched to speak of the Internet as a right given the present socio-economic scenario they witness around them. It is very important to see that the 'objections' of these two groups are of a very different nature.

I think the Internet should be seen as a right, but I have sympathies for the views of the second group above, because I can understand why they think as they do. They see people around them deprived of such basic things that to them it looks almost insensitive to speak of the Internet as a right. However, they have perhaps not given deep thought to how the Internet is fundamentally and structurally transforming social relationships, in a manner that impacts all, whether on the Internet or not. However, as I said, I do sympathise with this group of people, and the reason why they are averse to talking about a right to the Internet.

My real issue is with those who otherwise speak no end about the transformatory impact of the Internet, and how the Internet is the best thing to have happened to human beings for a long long time, but are hesitant to use the terminology of 'rights' vis-a-vis the Internet. We need to understand why they may be doing so.

Let me attempt a simple response to the quandary I posed. The problem I think with many people of this category is that when one speaks of 'rights', one can be expected very soon after, to speak about 'law'; and this group is completely averse to the application of human (political) law to the Internet. (As if the Internet is not already an artefact subject to various kinds of human will and interests.) This, in my view, is the real problem with the 'rights' terminology for this group.

They see the Internet purely as a domain of private relationships and contracts between individuals, who are somehow seen as automatically and equally empowered by the technology, which is of course a dangerous myth. This new 'free', 'open' and 'unencumbered' cyberspace that allows myriad private relationships and contracts is sought to replace the 'social contract' which underlies our polities and our laws. So of course, in the mind of this group, there is no need for a social contract or of laws regarding the Internet. Internet is itself the law giver or rather it replaces the law. Which is also why many of them do not speak of citizens, or people or humans in relation to the Internet. They prefer the term 'users' - people defined in relation to the Internet rather than the other way around. The term 'rights' simply does not sit too well with this world view, other than perhaps a very abstracted and disembodied version of human rights, released from their connection with polities and law, the kind that is too often heard spoken of in Internet governance spaces.

All of the above is not necessarily a precise critique of Vint Cerf's article as such, but these are the thoughts that arise in my mind on reading it and the subsequent discussion. When one takes up the pen, or the keyboard, to write an op-ed with the heading 'Internet access is not a human right' one would generally have a compelling reason behind it. Frankly, I haven't been able to divine the reason that propelled Vint in this case. I am sure he was not simply interested in interrogating conceptual issues around rights, need of horses and such. So, why did he really take the trouble to write this article, is something I am not clear about. What problem was he addressing (as a techie, such clarity of thought must be native to him)?

However, in case interrogating conceptual issues around human rights and the Internet as a technology was the intention of the article, I may offer a few more comments:

One, I find the article rather confused about the terms human rights and civil rights, especially the latter.

Secondly, it is also not quite on the spot about what one means by the Internet when one speaks of a right to the Internet. One doesn't mean necessarily a specific technology, IP/ TCP protocol or whatever. The wider society today understands by the Internet, a techno-social paradigm, which certainly is not transitory. It is here to stay, a permanent part of what human civilisation is and will be. Whether we take the Internet to mean,

(1) in a relatively narrower sense, a versatile p2p horizontal platform of seamless communication and interaction, or
(2) in a broader sense, as a new 'space' of human action (the cyberspace?)

The precise technical nature of the two above may change (and we would increasingly be quite unmindful of the underlying technology, as we may not be too bothered about what fuel may run a motor), but the broad techno-social nature of the 'Internet' and its social implications have enough specificity already formed for it to be a permanent and sufficiently 'recognisable/ fixable' part of our societies, as language and the written word are (around which, for instance, the right to education is formed).

The point is whether the Internet will 'primarily' be seen from an ordinary business/ economic point of view or from a rights based perspective. Education and health are two examples of areas where there is a huge amount of business involved but get 'primarily' seen from a rights based perspective. This strongly influences the way these two sectors get governed. If they were primarily seen from a business/ economic point of view, they will have been governed very differently. This is the crux of the 'right to the Internet' debate. (However, it is also true that the Internet space does have unique qualities – like it being a medium of free expression which challenges existing powers, including the state – that makes it different from these two others sectors, and these unique features will influence what kind of rights based approach is appropriate for it.)

Importantly, the phrase 'right to the Internet' is much broader than 'right to access the Internet' while including it. It means application of a rights based approach to all facets of the Internet, which could well include ensuring what has been called as 'search neutrality' or 'search transparency', overruling the justification of the involved algorithm being a 'trade secret'. In the same way as all ingredient information about medicines has to be declared, but this does not apply, say, for Coke. A relevant question could be; is the global knowledge architecture, which Google is transforming into, an important enough area, like medicines, for people to have basic human rights (and not just consumer rights) vis-a-vis it? If so, what policies would thereby be required to ensure such rights?

Parminder Jeet Singh