Is access to the Internet a universal human right that should be recognized by the United Nations? This question, buzzing around the world this week, is certainly one that I hadn’t thought of at length until now, so I posed it to my students this week and we could have debated it all night. There have been many calls over the past decade to include the ability of people to share and gather information from the Internet as a right on par with freedom of speech and association. Pro-democracy movements around the world, from Ukraine to Iran, Tunisia to Egypt, have all used the Internet as a key tool to jumpstart social movements. It is, however, a thorny issue because, unlike actual speech or personal association, accessing the Internet requires the use of several layers of technology, from the machines and devices that connect to the net to the networks that send and receive the information. Because of that technical barrier, there is a question of how exactly to explain what we mean if we wish to declare that all humans have a right to the network of networks called the Internet.
This blog has traditionally been the home to many questions relating to social networks and virtual worlds, but this issue in particular has been increasingly relevant to the discussions here as people around the world stand up for their rights in the real world. Social networks–although to a lesser extent than was originally cited–have had an important role to play in the growth of democracy movements across the globe. Their ability to quickly spread information and help people connect with others of similar interests has increased the power of protest organizers to react in real time to opportunities that benefit their movement. I wanted to spend a bit more time discussing a concept related to this development that I think is important, not just to social networks but the people who ultimately use them.
People often talk about the Internet as this monolithic force with powers of its own and that’s obviously a bit far-fetched. As a means of allowing people to find news from around the world, express their ideas and share that information with others, however, the Internet is an incredibly powerful tool. Access to information makes people more aware of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by others. Once they know what they could have, it’s often difficult to stand idly by while the elite get all the power. The past few years have shown that people are increasingly losing patience with the governments that would rule over them with an iron fist. Information is an incredibly powerful force for democracy. It explains why freedom of speech is protected in the First Amendment and why many authoritarian countries work so hard to limit its flow and exchange. The Great Firewall of China is the most well-known example of absolute control wielded by government officials, but some form of filtering is prevalent in other countries like Burma, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.
What are these governments so afraid of? One only has to look at how the movement to overthrow of the Tunisian government in late January spread quickly to Egypt and then across the rest of the Middle East. We often discuss how protesters use Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other services to organize marches and respond to events on the ground, but we’ve seen in Egypt that it’s not essential once the movement gains a critical mass of participation. Then, the tried and true means of word of mouth and land lines can pick up the slack if the Internet is cut off. The ability to coordinate is one thing, but it’s the ability to learn about movements outside one’s physical surroundings.
It’s an old truism that governments rule by the consent of the governed. Sometimes this consent is obtained through force and intimidation. It can also be bought with bribes and corruption. The people’s consent can be bought more easily if the people are kept ignorant, both of events within their borders and the wider world outside. The idea that the people can rise up and demand a new government is very frightening to authoritarian regimes. It explains why China has filtered out essentially all news of the protests in Egypt. One wonders if the site of millions of people rallying in the streets of Cairo keeps the Chinese Communist party leaders who oversaw the massacre at Tiananmin Square up at night. A report by Frontline a few years ago on the legendary Tank Man, who stood alone in front of a line of tanks converging on the square, found that few students in China today had ever even heard of the tank man or knew what happened in the spring of 1989.
If information is so important, what role should access to it have in an ideal world where human rights are guaranteed and protected? A recent survey by the BBC found that a significant majority of respondents thought that Internet access should be a universal human right recognized by the United Nations. But returning to the issue of technological infrastructure, who–if anyone–should be responsible for providing that Internet access? The government? Corporations? Non-governmental organizations? Then again, maybe we don’t have to guarantee access absolutely. Maybe the right should only guarantee that access, once granted, cannot be filtered or cut off by government authorities for political purposes. I realize that a squishy term like “political purposes” can get fuzzy and there’s plenty of room for debate about what that means or who gets to decide, but we should at least have the debate.
Right now, in the United States Congress is working on a bill that would give the President powers to take control of the Internet in the event of a cyber-attack. While rumors of a so-called “kill switch” like the power exercised in Egypt, are overblown, there are reasons to be concerned. The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement bureau has been seizing websites because of links to illegal sports content, which some senators think is an overreach. And because the definition and scope of “cyber-attack” isn’t exactly clear at the moment, in the face of a major, coordinated threat, who would stand in the way of a President exercising authority to keep us “safe.” The Internet was created as a way to maintain lines of communication in the event of a catastrophic nuclear attack, and it has grown substantially more robust since those early days, so the prospect of a cyber-attack reaching national proportions seems unlikely. Nevertheless, fear can lead people to support things that don’t have to be logical or reasonable. Hopefully debate about the cyber-attack bill will force Congress and the President to think about these issues with clear heads so that if an emergency does arise, we will have procedures in place to handle it responsibly.
I don’t know what I would do without the Internet, and I’m certainly in no immediate danger of losing it here in the U.S. I hope that continues. And if there’s a way to ensure that others around the world can get access to the host of information that I often take for granted, I’ll be the first to stand in line to fight for it.