In recent years the calls for governments around the world to declare and promulgate Internet access to a human or civil right has increased substantially. As our lives are increasingly becoming not only Internet-orientated but Internet-centred, it remains important to maintain perspective. Should the ability to log in be considered at the same level as the ability to speak your voice or the right to not be arbitrarily killed by others?
Often, when people discuss and debate various aspects of human rights, it becomes clear that there exists quite a lot of ambiguity about what a human right is, exactly. Many times when people talk about human rights they refer to certain rights that are articulated in various international charters, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
On the other end of the ambiguity, there are people who talk about human rights, and what they refer to are actually natural rights. These natural rights could be described as universal moral rights that are held by all humans simply by virtue of being human. Quite often people talking about human rights are actually equivocating between these distinct concepts. It’s important to avoid this equivocation, however, because legal human rights and natural rights are different sorts of moral entities, with different roles. The question that, therefore, begs to be answered is whether Internet access could be considered either of these two moral entities.
Vincent Cerf, considered the “father of the Internet” famously argues that the Internet is an enabler of rights and not a right in itself. To many, especially those who argue vigorously in favour of making Internet access a legal right, this argument by Cerf does not gel well with their worldview that all things need to be handed out and made available to all, regardless of consequence or costs.
However, a simple analogy supports Cerf’s views. 400 years ago, a donkey was a powerful tool which could be used to achieve freedom of movement, support an adequate standard of living, and by extension was a mechanism to easily practice personal free speech. Yet, no calls were made to have donkeys declared a human- or legal right. A donkey was merely an enabler of rights, a means to fulfil certain rights.
Natural rights are rights that are needed to lead a healthy and meaningful life. If Internet access is argued to be a natural right, historically millions of people have not been granted a fundamental right, even though it was impossible for the right to have been granted. Natural rights are supposed to be held universally by all humans simply by virtue of being human. It, therefore, does not make sense to say that there is a natural right to Internet access.
A stronger case could be made for a legal right to Internet access. This is also seen around the world, with some courts and legislators concluding that the ability to log in should be guaranteed for all individuals. The main issue with this logic is that, as a consequence, it opens up various other questions and complications. If Internet access should be a legal right because the Internet is important for individuals to practice their free speech, free access to all newspapers should be a legal right for an individual to be guaranteed their right to information as well as receiving speech.
Furthermore, if the legal right to Internet access is secured, does this legal right include the right to the electricity needed to power the device to access the Internet? Should individuals be guaranteed devices to practice their legal right to Internet access?
At this point, many would counter argue that just as other rights, a legal right to Internet access does not entail that the right must be positively ensured or actively worked towards, but that the right merely ensures that Internet access is not arbitrarily obstructed or impaired. In other words, many proponents would argue that the right to Internet access on be guaranteed in so far that your right to Internet access may not be obstructed or impaired by others. The irony of this argument is self-evident. The argument looks like this: you have a right to actively gain a platform for your freedom of expression by having unhindered access to the Internet, but your right to Internet access is only guaranteed to the extent that others may not impair your access.
Like many third generation rights that newer constitutions guarantee, the tangibility of each right comes into question. The same is true with the Internet. Not only do countries need to realistically consider whether or not certain rights are within their respective means to guarantee, but do countries have to take into consideration the complications of it.
In the classical sense, the right to freedom of speech entails that this right should not be encroached or impaired in any way, not that everybody has to go out of their way for you to have the tangible effect of the right. Had this been the case, what do plan to do with your donkey?