Saturday, 9 July 2011

Universal access to the internet a human right? Not so, Mr Special Rapporteur

Rarely can there have been such a clear example of the muddled state of human rights thinking as the UN Report on freedom of expression on the internet. 

Most of the Report, by Special Rapporteur Frank la Rue and submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, is an incisive, indeed inspiring, manifesto for protection of the internet from censorship and other interference from the state.  Point by point it targets arbitrary blocking and filtering of content by the state, criminalisation of legitimate expression (such as locking up bloggers), imposition of intermediary liability, internet disconnection and three strikes rules, government-initiated cyber-attacks and State violations of privacy.  Truly excellent stuff.

But in Part V the report morphs into a plea for a government-sponsored universal entitlement to be provided with access to the internet.  The Rapporteur is quite candid about this: 
“…the Special Rapporteur would like to underscore that access to the Internet has two dimensions: access to online content, without any restrictions except in a few limited cases permitted under international human rights law; and the availability of the necessary infrastructure and information communication technologies, such as cables, modems, computers and software, to access the Internet in the first place.”
The second dimension is paraded under the banner of human rights.  In truth it is not a human right at all. It is a claim that I, someone who would like an internet connection, can via the coercive agency of the state compel other people to sacrifice the fruits of their labour to satisfy my desire.  

Many will argue, on myriad grounds related to social justice, general welfare and the like, that that is a reasonable claim that the state should enforce.  But a human right it is not.  It is the opposite: a claim that the state can justifiably abrogate human rights in the name of a greater good. 

To pretend that forced redistribution of wealth in what the state deems to be a good cause is an expression of human rights (so-called ‘positive’ human rights), rather than an interference with them, dilutes and tarnishes the really important human rights addressed in most of the Report: the rights that entrench protection from actions of the state.

So 10 out of 10, Mr Special Rapporteur, for most of your Report.  Minus infinity for Part V.

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