Internet Access Should Be a Civil Right

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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.

12 Responses

  1. Everything Jim says is true. However, I’d argue with the use of the present tense. Perhaps, this year I’ll see that change. Until the Internet truly becomes a necessity for involvement in democracy and, for another example, getting a decent education, I’ll leave universal Internet access as a goal that we should pursue vigorously, a goal that reminds me of rural electrification.

    In the meantime, we should prepare ourselves for the rapidly arriving time when access to the Internet will become a civil right because you won’t be a part of your own society without it. It’s not too early and might even be a bit late to take bold steps toward the goal of universal direct Internet access — direct as opposed to dial-up.

    • Hi, Harry. If we value an informed citizenry, then I think we need to act sooner rather than later. Time waits for no one. Especially today. As the information flow into the e-world grows exponentially, the gap between the connected and unconnected will increase proportionately. To function in today’s world, connection is critical. Failure to act swiftly will result in a sizable population that’s increasingly alienated, disenfranchised, and out of the mainstream. For any government, this could be a disaster.

      • I agree fully with this principle. I prefer a more egalitarian society, especially in education. My comments are directed to reality. Until we see civil rights of some minority being violated by lack of Internet access or possibly about to be violated flagrantly, we won’t get it.

        With so many being opposed to being taxed to help the less advantaged, we have an uphill battle to do something like this voluntarily. It may take a court decision We’re dealing with politics here, and I’m not sanguine about the possibilities.

  2. Great summary, was wondering what Bob Khan would think or say.
    Good thinking.


  3. I tend to agree with Harry. I believe that everyone (and not just in USA and the western world) should be able to access the Internet but I am not convinced that it is a ‘right’. There are many things that are desirable but they are not human rights. We want the Internet but we need oxygen and drinking water. It’s more like electricity – sure it is desirable that everyone has it, but is it a right?

    • Harry Keller (January 9, 2012 at 8:42 am): “Until we see civil rights of some minority being violated by lack of Internet access or possibly about to be violated flagrantly, we won’t get it…. We have an uphill battle to do something like this voluntarily…. We’re dealing with politics here, and I’m not sanguine about the possibilities.”

      Harry and Niall, I guess it comes down to our definitions of “necessity.”

      In my mind, information has always been a necessity. With the advent of the internet, I think we’ve crossed over from the information society to the enformation society. There’s a world of difference between the two. The first was accessible F2F and by hardcopy publications, and TV as well as the internet.

      The second, the enformation society, however, is accessible primarily via the internet. Like payphones/landlines on the one hand and cellphones on the other, information is rapidly being replaced by enformation. This means that without internet access, one would not be able to receive or send critical or essential enformation.

      The right to enformation is meaningless without the means to access it. To keep all citizens apprised of the latest issues and to provide the means to participate in the discussions and, eventually, in the decisions is critical to the survival and effectiveness of democracy. Those without access to enformation would be, literally, disenfranchised and alienated.

      Once the access issue is favorably resolved, the next issue would be access to the equipment. The price of these is falling rapidly (e.g., the Aakash, and subsidizing these may not be a major hurdle.

      In short, the world has changed, and, today, enformation is a necessity.

  4. Sharing this from the Benton Website.

    Submitted by Kevin Taglang on January 6, 2012 – 10:56am
    Debating Internet Rights

    Submitted for further reflection and discussion.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • Hi, Bonnie. Thanks for this comprehensive coverage of the debate. This is a must-read for anyone interested in this complex issue. I hope you won’t mind the editing: I deleted the quoted article from your comment and replaced it with a URL link to the original. This way the discussion will be easier to follow. -Jim

  5. Thanks …I forgot. Look at this empowering tool.

    I have done four lessons so far.

    • Bonnie, the codeacademy is interesting! What kinds of programs or apps will students learn to write? Will they be web apps or Windows apps?

  6. I started the CodeAcademy and did ten lessons. It was so empowering.
    Here is why. The buzz in the group of people I work with in Supercomputing , not the Education group , but the general group, is that teachers don’t like, can’t do , and I was told that I was too stupid to do code, by a person who is employed as a EEOC person in charge of Broadening Engagement. She is still standing, and within the group K-12 is being pushed out , in the hopes that using undergraduate teaches and funding them, that the one percent of minorities who are involved will be served. Here is the problem with that… how long will that take,? Which of those people duly trained, will be employed in places where they are in touch, and given permission to teach computational thinking and code.

    Perhaps school systems will let teachers take this . I believe that the kids who are exposed to teachers who are comfortable with computational thinking and coding.


    Here is the link.!/exercises/0

    Here is what they offer.

    Getting Started with Programming

    Time to become a coding ninja.
    0% complete 0 of 8 lessons finished
    8 lessons 42 exercises
    JavaScript Quick Start Guide

    A guide to JavaScript for people who already know how to code in other languages.
    0% complete 0 of 8 lessons finished
    8 lessons 45 exercises
    Functions in Javascript

    Learn how to define a function in Javascript. A function is a piece of code that takes zero or more values as inputs, performs some computation and then returns a result. You will also learn about the concept of variable scope which determines how and where in the code the value of a variable can be accessed.
    0% complete 0 of 3 lessons finished
    3 lessons 8 exercises

    This is the first application for Week 1 of Code Year.
    0% complete 0 of 1 lesson finished

    Also online Stanford has some computational science lessons.
    And then there is the MIT program. Open courseware now with the ability to get credit for it.

    In learning the use of Computational science I have had resources, lessons and workshops from NCSI. and from , and the work that is done by Alexanser Repenning who teaches K-12 teaxchers and kids. Agent sheets is one of his projects.

    How long would it take for transformational change within school systems. I am worried that the change is too slow.

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