Internet Access: Is it a human right?

I read with interest a report on Mashable about a new UN declaration that states Internet Access is a human right, and disconnecting people from the Net is against International Law. The main reason I think it’s interesting is that, not too long ago, Internet access was seen more as a luxury than a necessity.

It’s fascinating to see how that view has changed now, with Internet access being seen as much more than a mere luxury item.

Reading through the UN report (yes, I have read it) also makes for very interesting reading if you can handle the necessarily formal tone of the writing. I particularly liked this quote from the Conclusions and Recommendations section of the report:

“Unlike any other medium, the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an “enabler” of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.”

Wow – and I thought it was just for playing games and tweeting! Seriously, though, think back to those days when the Net was populated solely by bespectacled geeks writing in AOL chat rooms. Not that there’s a problem with being a geek, obviously, but there was a definite nerdy perception of Internet users. Now we see the Internet described as an enabler of human rights which contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.

With this in mind, the UN recommends against restricting people’s Internet access unless there is a clear legal reason for doing so and an understanding that Internet blocks are the least restrictive course of action in any given case. The Special Rapporteur also expresses concern that legitimate online expression is being criminalised in contravention of States’ international human rights obligations, for example shutting off the Internet to prevent messages spreading that the government would prefer to censor.

It seems to me that the core “human right” here is the right to express an opinion and the right to access information rather than the right to have an Internet connection itself. It’s just that the Internet is such a powerful and all-pervasive tool for these ends, the two are starting to become almost inseparable.

I’d be very interested to know what you think about this. Is the UN right to say that removing someone’s Internet access could count as a breach of human rights? Is the Internet really a great tool contributing to the progress of humankind? Do you have something else you want to say about this issue? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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