Internet access is a human right

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While some may believe it is a bit early to consider internet access a human right as the internet becomes more and more important in daily life we need to consider how to protect the freedoms of the internet, writes Alex Helling.

The case

Human rights come from the need to protect individuals from the arbitrary power of the state. Human rights are “international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses.” There have been attempts to codify human rights internationally through agreements particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948. This listed a large number of political, social and economic rights that are supposed to be universally held. Despite this there is no universally followed list of rights and there is the possibility that more human rights may over time become recognised or become necessary where there was not the need before. Internet access is an obvious example of this; the internet was only invented in 1973 and the world wide web in 1989. As the internet has become a vital conduit for information only in the last decade it could not have been considered a human right only a few decades ago.

Just as there is no definitive list of human rights that is universally recognised what exactly the criteria for what a right into a human right is open for dispute. The Human Rights Reference Handbook characterises them as being:

  • Inherent in all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone (they do not have, e.g., to be purchased or to be granted so are universal)
  • Inalienable (within qualified legal boundaries)
  • Equally applicable to all.

Several other features of human rights may also be added to these. They are based upon the relationship between government and the people rather than two individuals, and the responsibility for these rights primarily falls upon the government. They are minimal standards; what we cannot fall below rather than what we would like to have. As they are universal they need to have strong justifications that can apply everywhere so that they can be recognised in all cultures. This potentially provides a high threshold for considering a right to be a human right.

Internet access might be considered a human right in and of itself in which case there is a need for the concept of internet access to meet the above conditions; however it could equally be argued that internet access is already a human right as a part of human rights that already exist, particularly the freedom of expression.

Author opinion

A human right to internet access is an interesting concept that needs to be explored. It directly relates to how we fulfil the first draft principle “We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.” The internet is the greatest tool of communication invented so far. It is however becoming much more than this but a separate social sphere in itself. A human right to internet access may well be necessary to ensure everyone is able to interact in this sphere.

Alex Helling

 Read the arguments for and against and make up your own mind


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