“People are using technology as a battering ram against the walls of fear and isolation that dictatorships erect to keep their populations quiescent. In country after country where governments have controlled nearly every aspect of life, people are demanding openness and accountability, as well as jobs and opportunity, using old ways and new ways to make themselves heard. They’ve done it online, and by risking life and limb on the streets; they’ve done it in song and text message, and in videos smuggled across borders when the Internet is turned off.
It turns out that two billion networked users are nearly impossible to silence.
In my world, the world of human rights, this new capacity for instant communication and participation has created an unprecedented dynamic. Let me give you an example. Last week in Syria, Arab League Human Rights monitors complained — unofficially — that they were not being permitted to view protests or interview demonstrators or travel freely to observe events. Yet that same day, anyone with an Internet connection could watch horrific footage on YouTube of wounded protestors in Syria who appeared to be dying on camera.
Syria is not having a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt or a YouTube winter. Syria is having a mass outbreak of courage. Tens of thousands of demonstrators know they risk arrest, torture and death if they take to the streets. But they’re doing it anyway. Day after day. Their courage does not emanate from any digital device. It comes from knowing that they are not alone.
So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vincent Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed piece last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did. It’s worth noting that the Arab Spring did not start because of Twitter. It started because of the heartbreaking decision by one vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to set himself ablaze.
Connective technologies are powerful tools for strengthening and amplifying the bonds between people and organizations — for good and for ill. Last year, they enabled terrorists to recruit, and they enabled global cooperation to solve a myriad of human problems by transcending time zones, borders and even language barriers. The same connective technologies that enabled teenage bullies to orchestrate the persecution of their victims also enabled Russian activists to monitor parliamentary elections and then organize huge street demonstrations protesting the unfairness of those elections.
But let me be clear about U.S. policy: We don’t promote Internet freedom or connective technologies as a means of promoting “regime change.” We promote the freedoms of expression, association and assembly online and offline because these universal freedoms are the birthright of every individual. Human rights and human dignity are not bestowed upon people by groups or governments, and no government should feel empowered to deny them. It is up to every individual — and therefore the people of every country — to decide how to exercise them.
Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop. We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil — or more noble — when it is committed online rather than offline. You can’t sell child pornography in Farragut Square or Tahrir Square, and you can’t sell it on the Internet, either. You can’t break into a theater and steal the movie reels and you can’t steal movies online, either. You can’t beat up and gag a peaceful protestor and you can’t jail her for a blog post criticizing a government policy, either.
Now, I said earlier that we agree that no one has a human right to any particular technology. But at the same time, we believe that creators and purveyors of technologies have a responsibility to respect human rights through their products and their practices. Moreover, the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights extends far beyond the creators of a given technology. It is the responsibility of every company.”
“A curious op ed appeared in The New York Times recently, titled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” In this piece—which I read as I do most news and media, via my computer—Vinton Cerf, a “father” of the Internet, makes an argument that despite the critical role of Information Communication Technologies (the internet) in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, access to the Internet is not a human right.
I should note that his right to express himself so is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to… seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The curious bit of his piece though, isn’t the claim that Internet Access is not a human right, but rather the exceptionally narrow portrayal of human rights from a legal and philosophical perspective.
Here’s how human rights work: We have an established body of international law that represents the aspirations of humanity for each human being in realizing their inherent dignity and autonomy. States are obligated under this body of law to enact domestic laws or policies to realize those rights. Simple stuff.
But people, societies, and cultures change. Regimes and systems of governance change. And faster than anything else, technologies change and science produces ever greater knowledge of truth. And that means that policies and interpretation of what human rights guarantee must also change.
As a relevant aside,
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (Article 27 of the UDHR).
In just over a decade, communication technologies have become indispensable to the world’s most marginalized people. Indeed, loss of access would be a mere annoyance to me. In places from Sub-Saharan Africa to the most impoverished communities here in the US, however, loss of access could mean an immediate threat to lives and livelihoods. No, not for me or Mr. Cerf.
And the increasing necessity of internet access for the world’s most impoverished as it relates to health, education, employment, the arts, gender equality—all things we have the right to enjoy means that Information Technologies (yes, the Internet) are inseparable from the rights themselves.
What is the Internet? It is an endless network of people, information, and knowledge. And resting on the architecture of the Internet is a digital public space found in social and professional networking that rivals the richness of any physical town square. And—using Cerf’s logic—while access to the physical town square may not be a human right in isolation, it has always been for most inseparable from the right to association and expression. And denial of access to the town square through curfews, martial law, or emergency rules are tantamount to restriction on association and expression.
The rights enshrined in the UDHR are to be enjoyed by all people, in all places, and at all times. Technological progress will always change how people enjoy their fundamental rights, and require governments and people to reaffirm the inseparability rights, and the methods of enjoyment of those rights.
In a recent UN report—published at the height of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa— Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue acknowledges the pivotal role the internet plays for the exercise of human rights:
The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.
I get asked by students more than occasionally: Given that the UDHR and the core human rights covenants prohibit discrimination based on gender or on race, why do we also have CEDAW? Or CERD? (Separate treaties relating to discrimination against women and racial discrimination).
The simplified answer is: We have them because the original guarantees as elaborated weren’t enough. We have them because our evolving understanding of the rights enshrined in the UDHR required new instruments to guarantee those rights. We have them because someone, somewhere, refused to make the necessary changes to policy or practice to guarantee some segment of the human family the rights they were already guaranteed in the UDHR.
Because someone, somewhere said “that’s not a human right.”
Follow Scott Edwards on Twitter @sxedwards”