[FoRK] [tt] Vint Cerf is full of shit

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Jan 5 12:48:04 PST 2012

(ability to TCP/IP is free speech. period.)


Internet Access Is Not a Human Right


Published: January 4, 2012

Reston, Va.

Brett Yasko

FROM the streets of Tunis to Tahrir Square and beyond, protests around the
world last year were built on the Internet and the many devices that interact
with it. Though the demonstrations thrived because thousands of people turned
out to participate, they could never have happened as they did without the
ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organize and publicize
everywhere, instantaneously.

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about
whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is
particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet
access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings
in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special
rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an
indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few
years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have
pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is
an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something
to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we
as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from
torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular
technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing
the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was
hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to
make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to
have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we
are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech
and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to
any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United
Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human
right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not
as an end in itself.

What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The
same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a
tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that
it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human
right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they
are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a
telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service”
— the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband
Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country.
When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a
civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.

Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the
responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil
rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian
platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale.
As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and
civil rights.

In this context, engineers have not only a tremendous obligation to empower
users, but also an obligation to ensure the safety of users online. That
means, for example, protecting users from specific harms like viruses and
worms that silently invade their computers. Technologists should work toward
this end.

It is engineers — and our professional associations and standards-setting
bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — that
create and maintain these new capabilities. As we seek to advance the state
of the art in technology and its use in society, we must be conscious of our
civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.

Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which
to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the
civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that
access itself is such a right.

Vinton G. Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers, is a vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.

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