Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Is There a Human Right to the Internet?

Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Is There a Human Right to the Internet?

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper argues that there is not a human right to the Internet. It presents five commonly made arguments for a human right to the Internet, and it shows how they all fail. This paper approaches the discussion from a position that holds human rights as instrumentally necessary things for membership in a political community and goes on to argue that although Internet access is instrumentally valuable for membership, it should not be seen as a human right in and of itself because it is not necessary for membership. Instead, its denial should be seen as a potentially urgent threat to a more basic list of human rights, namely the human right to assembly, where there may exist negative duties not to cause urgent threats at a human rights level.

Keywords: human rights, international law, internet, technology policy, urgent threats

1. Is There a Human Right to the Internet?

Humanity has seen a major increase in the number of people accessing the Internet in the twenty first century. From 2000 to 2011, the number of humans with access to the Internet has increased by approximately 480%, for a total of over 2 billion Internet users. Nevertheless, about 70% of humanity does not have Internet access, and a large body of literature has taken heed to address this "global digital divide" (Note 1).

Concerns with the digital divide have raised questions about the moral demands of information and communication technology (ICT), and the purpose of this paper is to contribute to this discussion by asking whether the Internet is a human right. A number of things are often said about ICTs and the Internet:

* The Internet is good for democracy, as it helps build credibility in government and it facilitates public participation (Norris, 2001; Wellman, B., Quan Haase, A., Witte, J., & Hampton, K., 2001).

* The Internet helps protect against human rights violations (UN Human Rights Council, 2011).

* The Internet empowers its users to participate in global economic and social activities (Norris, 2001).

There are good reasons for supporting these claims, and it would seem there is good reason for welcoming the proliferation of ICTs and the number of humans with access to the Internet. However, these points do not establish why we should consider the Internet to be a human right. They are simply values without significant argumentative weight.

As of late, there have been several assertions of the Internet's status as a human right. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, recently likened Internet access to water access at a MIT symposium (Note 2). In Estonia, Finland, France, Greece and Spain, Internet access has already been proclaimed a fundamental right. Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN Human Rights Council, 2011) published a special report on the status of the Internet as a human right, claiming it is a fundamental right of all humanity. Nevertheless, no arguments have been put forth that ground claims to a human right to the Internet in contemporary human rights theory.

The goal of this paper is twofold. First and foremost, this paper argues that there is not a human right to the Internet. It presents five commonly made arguments for a human right to the Internet, and it shows how they all fail. Second, this paper will propose a method for conceptualizing things that are important, such as the Internet, in human rights discourse without claiming that these things are human rights in and of themselves. This is important because of the growing problem of human rights inflation. Human rights inflation refers to the eroding expansion of human right claims that threaten to undermine the value of human rights and their function as protectors of a specific set of urgent norms. A rather inflated claim to a human right that is often cited is a human right to one month paid vacation time. Paid vacation time, like the Internet, is not a human right, and this paper will help clarify why this is so. …

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