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Father Of Internet Says Web Access Is Not A Human Right

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Vint Cerf argues that technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself

Vint Cerf, one of the so-called ‘fathers of the internet’, has dismissed the argument that internet access is a human right.

Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a vice president of Google, told the New York Times that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.”

Cerfing the Web

Internet access is increasingly seen as a human right and Cerf acknowledges that the role of social networks and the internet during the Arab Spring has proved to be a catalyst for discussion. However Cerf argues that these arguments miss the point

Egyptian authorities blocked access to Twitter in January as anti-government protesters used it to communicate with each other during demonstrations and even went as far to implement an internet blackout in the country in an attempt to stop protests. Even as recently as December, the Syrian government banned the use of iPhones in the country.

“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,” said Cerf. “They could never have happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organise and publicise everywhere, instantaneously.”

However Cerf says that there is a high bar for something to be considered a human right as it must be something that humans need to lead healthy lives, such as freedom from torture or conscience. He says that it would be a mistake to put technology in this category as it changes over time and it is merely an enabling factor.

Civil Rights Movement

A UN report ruled that the internet had “become an indispensable tool for realising a range of human rights”, a statement which Cerf says shows the UN agrees that the internet is valuable as the means to an end, not an end itself.

However, Cerf acknowledges that there are stronger arbuments for internet access being a civil, not a human right: “They [civil rights] are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.” He cites the US notion of ‘universal service’ which requires services such as telephone, electricity and broadband to be made available in even the most remote regions of the country.

“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,” he said.

A BBC World Service poll carried out in March 2010 said that 80 percent of people worldwide considered internet access to be a human right rather than a privilege and the UN is increasingly pushing for it to be declared a universal right.

Spain, Estonia and Finland have all made internet access a legal right, while a US group has officially petitioned the US government to amend the constitution and make web access an unalienable right.