By Jim Shimabukuro
In “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right” (NY Times, 1.4.12), Vinton G. Cerf argues that internet access is neither a human nor a civil right. It is, simply put, a means to and end, “a tool for obtaining something else more important.” For Cerf, civil laws should focus on the rights themselves and not the means to achieve them. He views technology as a tool, “an enabler of rights, not a right itself.”
Cerf makes a lot of sense, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for the internet. In most cases, the means and ends are clearly separate, e.g., the means to work (a horse, using Cerf’s example) and the right to earn a living. Everyone would agree that a right to own a horse is ridiculous. In other cases, however, such as schools and compulsory education, the means and ends aren’t so clearcut. In this case, the end would be unattainable without the means. Thus, the law specifies schooling. In the case of health and health care, too, the means and ends are, literally, one and the same.
The Internet (Opte Project 2007)
I believe the same logic holds true for the internet and the means to access it. That is, without access service, the internet would be out of reach. Thus, legislation that guarantees a right to access information without provisions to act on that right would be meaningless.
Cerf argues that we already have the freedom to access information and that it is sufficient to cover access to the internet. But is it?
For all practical purposes, the internet is invisible so it’s difficult to define. In general, it “is a global system of interconnected computer networks that … serve[s] billions of users worldwide. It is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks, of local to global scope, that are linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless and optical networking technologies” (Wikipedia).
With the internet, “information” takes on a whole new meaning. It’s no longer local but global. It’s no longer static but dynamic. It’s no longer one-way but interactive. It’s no longer the construct of powerful publishers but of every individual on the planet. It’s no longer just news and announcements but work, education, entertainment, social networking, and politics.
In other words, the internet has changed forever the landscape of information and communications and what it means to be human. We’re in the midst of the greatest migration in the history of our species, but most of us aren’t aware that we’re moving because we’re still in the same geographical location.
This migration is from our earth-bound locales to the virtual world of the internet, where we’re freed from the restrictions of time and space. We can access information from sources around the world at anytime, communicate with anyone from wherever we are whenever we want.
The problem is those who are being left behind. The gap between them and the emigrants is not just technology but quality of life. The internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Like water and oxygen, we all need it to survive and thrive.
Finland has it right. Broadband access to the internet should be a basic civil right, and we can’t escape the fact that this translates to providing internet services to those who can’t afford it. Yes, the technology changes rapidly and the cost to keep services up to date will be great, but we can do no less for our fellow human beings.
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