In Internet Access a Human Right Under Article 19?

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Is Internet access a human right?

A United Nations special report last June on “the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” talks about the indispensable nature of the Internet:

“Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access… should be a priority for all states.”


The author, Frank LaRue, also writes:

“States have also taken measures to cut off access to the Internet entirely. The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided… to be disproportionate and thus a violation of Article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”


I agree that Internet access facilitates connectivity. It’s certainly good for business. I wrote a post two years ago about how data democratization and the democratization of access have transformed the way we do business. The Internet has also been a critical tool for political activism, perhaps no more starkly evident than in the groundswell of online-organized activities that followed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.  Most recently, it’s enabled Syrians in cut-off cities to show the world what’s happening inside their country.

The Internet levels the playing field. And it gives voice to the voiceless. But is access a right?

I’m not sure.

Vinton Cerf, a VP at Google who is considered one of the fathers of the Internet, says no. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Cerf writes:

“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.”


I think he’s right. But what say you?

Photo by Val Kerry (Flickr). 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments ( 4 )

  • Hi Daria,
    How are you? Great question.
    There were times here in India when it was not possible for a farmer to pass over a middleman because he was not aware of the prices in the market
    Now tech savvy farmers often use cellphones to directly communicate with the customers. Not only have they cut the middleman but have brought better prosperity to themselves.
    Technology is also enabling women in a model village in my state( also visited by a US president) to learn computers and learn new technology.
    In my opinion, keeping people away from internet is almost like keeping them without clean water and hygienic food. Non-access to technology may not be debilitating but it sure will stop many great things that could have happened, from happening.
    In that sense right to internet and technology are very much close to becoming “human rights”. I can’t imagine, for example people in India without a cellphone now. A few years back whole village had only one phone. Now everyone has got at least one cellphone which has changed life for them in many ways.

  • Hi Ashvini,

    You’re raising all the same issues that I have been pondering since I started thinking about this question (a lot) a couple of months ago. Having grown up in Africa, I witnessed exactly the same challenges that you’re describing. In fact, for much of the two years we lived in Libreville, Gabon, our phone worked only sporadically. You’re right, even a simple cellphone can make an enormous difference–and that’s not even talking “smartphone.”

    But the mobile analogy itself perhaps also points to what Vinton Cerf is suggesting: that focusing on one technology (the Internet) perhaps misses the bigger point.

    Yet, on the other hand, the suggestion of cutting off access (whether a government shutting it down completely, State censorship, or even the threat posed by recent legislation in the U.S. Congress) creates a public outcry over how “unacceptable this is.” Which suggests that many of us see this, de facto, as a fundamental right.

    A lot of food for thought.

  • Shannon A. Shea

    Dear Daria, Thank you for putting this question out there. I think it is an important concern and one many of us are wondering about. If you will allow it, I think a distinction has to be made in order to get to the essence of the question. In the title of your post you ask if access to the internet is a right. Then, quoting Vinton Cerf, you consider whether technology is a right. These are, in essence, two very different things. The question, I think, boils down to a point related to the vision of human rights which you rightly refer to – is the ideal of the human rights interfered with, or blocked in some way by a lack of access to the means to inform oneself and act differently based on that information? What we have seen is that access to information through the use of the internet makes people more free (as mentioned by Ashvini), and thus more able to make well informed choices about their lives and futures. In this sense, access to the internet through the use of technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, pc’s, etc. becomes a means to fulfilling the ideal of human rights. When that access is denied – either through direct actions as you mention, or through prohibitive costs, or lack of the necessary technological infrastructure – the means to fulfilling a right is also denied. Fulfillment is one of the obligations States’ have with respect to human rights. It is not enough to respect and protect them. Many rights are positive in the sense that they give something (i.e. education or health care). Access rights are positive as well – they give people something fundamental to their wellbeing. People have a right to information, to education, to adequate means to see to their health and wellbeing. The internet is now a primary point of access to the necessary information – especially in developing countries – where access was previously not an option. Thus, perhaps there is not a right to the technology itself, but there is increasing evidence that access to information technologies is fundamental to the fulfillment of the goals of the human rights paradigm.

    • Hi Shannon,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I appreciate your adding to this conversation, and clarifying something that I was struggling to articulate: that it’s not enough to give lip service to human rights, but that “fulfillment is one of the obligations States have.” Which then follows that having access to the information necessary to exercise our human rights is fundamental. In that sense, I better understand the point the UN Special Rapporteur was making.