Means to human rights mustn’t be mistaken for rights themselves

Should access to the Internet be a human right?

The unequivocal importance of the Internet derives from the fact that it is a means that enables so many human rights (Cerf, 2012; United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapportuer on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank la Rue, 2011, p.1 [In order not to stifle the flow of this blog, this report will hence force be referenced as La Rue]). United Nations Special Rapporteur, La Rue (2011), brings to light that the Internet is, in particular, a chief means in exercising Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Through enacting Article 19, many other human rights can also be enacted and these will be discussed in more detail later (La Rue, 2011, p. 1). Yet Cerf (2012), who is commonly known was one of ‘the fathers of the Internet’, states that it is unwise to place these means in the category of human rights for they are bound to change; the means of achieving human rights should not be mistaken for being human rights themselves. While it is hard for us to imagine a world where the Internet is redundant or so far evolved that we don’t recognise it, these possibilities very much exist. However, I argue that the present significance of these means should not be diminished. For what is the point of having human rights if they cannot be exercised? Indeed, while La Rue (2011, p. 22) also clearly suggests that the Internet is a means to enabling human rights, rather than a human right itself, he implores that all States must make it a priority to ensure that the Internet is universally accessible.

I agree with these sentiments and therefore state that access to the Internet should not be a human right. Instead, its current nonpareil role in enabling many human rights means that all States must, ‘though concrete and effective policy … make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population’ (La Re, 2011, p.22). In this way, if or when the time comes when another technology is more nonpareil than the Internet, States should and must move their focus to this technology.

However, the concept of universal accessibility must truly, truly be enforced. For this universal accessibility is necessary for all humans to live equally. As stated earlier, the enacting of Article 19 paths the way for a number of other human rights to be enacted (La Rue, 2011, p. 1). I have selected only four articles from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that pertain to the types of discussions that we have been having in class:

  • Article 17: the right to own property (i.e. finding properties and settling contracts online)
  • Article 23: the right to work (i.e. finding and applying for jobs online)
  • Article 26: the right to education (i.e. undertaking accredited of personal learning through online resources)
  • Article 27: the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community (i.e. joining online communities or finding out about groups and events online)

Some people, such as O’Rielly (2015, p.4), the commissioner of the American Federal Communications Commission, state that these tasks can be undertaken without the Internet. For this reason, O’Rielly (2015, p. 4)states that access to the Internet is not a necessity. I suppose in a very warped and backward way this statement is truthful. But the real truth is, as La Rue (2011, p. 17) states:

With wealth being one of the significant factors in determining who can access information communication technologies, Internet access is likely to be concentrated among the socio-economic elites

In this way, it is the wealthy who reap the benefits of the Internet while the less wealthy remain static. Rural residents and people living with disabilities also largely find themselves in the latter category (La Rue, 2011, p. 17). Ensuring that universal access to the Internet is made a priority of all States ensures that all citizens of the world have the potential to be on an equal playing field.

Discussion Point: La Rue (2011, p. 22) suggests that the State should provide Internet literacy skills classes out schools and in other places outside of schools. This is suggested so that the Internet is not just accessed by everybody, but accessed in a meaningful way (La Rue, 2011, p. 22). Do you think that librarians can or should play a role in this in Australia?

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Kate

I am a Master of Information Science student at QUT. This is my learning blog.

5 thoughts on “Means to human rights mustn’t be mistaken for rights themselves”

  1. Hi Kate, great post! I’m glad you pointed out that distinction between access to the internet being a means of obtaining human rights, rather than the human right itself. It seems so sensible not to name the means of obtaining the human right of access to information as of course technology will change over time.

    La Rue’s words about wealth being a key determiner of access to information communication technologies reminds me of Castells’ theories of informational capitalism; with those who have the benefits of ICTs able to participate in the global economy and have a better quality of life than those who do not have access to ICTs.

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Michelle, thanks for taking the time to read my blog. I really appreciate you highlighting the similarities between La Rue’s paper and Castells’ theories. I, foolishly, overlooked this when writing my blog. It is interesting that both of these works have been generated by the United Nations; this topic has been of concern since the turn of the century. Yet we still don’t seem any closer to bridging the digital divide.

  2. Hi Kate,

    I really enjoyed reading your post- very thought provoking. It’s a real challenge getting my head around the distinction between the internet being a ‘means to enabling human rights’ rather than a human right itself. If you don’t have the means, than you can’t obtain the rights.

    That aside, I believe that the internet, being a form of technology, cannot be classified as a human right. How could governments in poor countries provide this right for their people when even their basic human needs are not being met.

    I found this article by the Australian Human Rights Commission (https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/background-paper-human-rights-cyberspace/8-right-access-internet) about making access to the internet a right for the Australian people and it made me ponder about the government’s challenge to have all Australians able to access the internet seen as a priority when there seems to be far more pressing social issues they need to be prioritising. The refugee crisis, for example.

    I think the government needs to backtrack a little on prioritising internet access when you have reports about Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers stating this:

    “The Australian Government has been urged to rethink its ‘abusive’ policies on asylum seekers and refugees, with an international human rights organisation highlighting its ‘failure to respect international standards’.”
    (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-28/hrw-urges-australian-government-to-rethink-abusive-policies/7120610)

    1. Hi Lisa, your comment is equally though provoking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here; I’m finding it difficult to respond to such a thoughtful comment. What huge ideas were touching upon here. I do wish to say that I believe that the importance Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights should not be dismissed to lightly (it is a human right after all). This article reads:
      Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
      Internet is truly one of the most important means to exercising this article. I wonder who the events of the world would play out differently if all people were exercising this right to to its fullest. Certainly the role of the internet in the recent events in Egypt provide food for thought: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-12306041

      (please see above for links to references)

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