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'... technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.'

Vint Cerf says: '... technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.'

Read the article, and then let us know what you think.


I am copy/pasting the article here for those who may not be able to access it:
January 4, 2012

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right


Reston, Va.

FROM the streets of Tunis to Tahrir Square and beyond, protests around the world last year were built on the Internet and the many devices that interact with it. Though the demonstrations thrived because thousands of people turned out to participate, they could never have happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously.

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.

Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights.

In this context, engineers have not only a tremendous obligation to empower users, but also an obligation to ensure the safety of users online. That means, for example, protecting users from specific harms like viruses and worms that silently invade their computers. Technologists should work toward this end.

It is engineers — and our professional associations and standards-setting bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — that create and maintain these new capabilities. As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology and its use in society, we must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.

Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.

Vinton G. Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is a vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.

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Comment by Virginia (Ginger) Paque on January 13, 2012 at 5:43pm

I have proposed the idea of an interactive online Webinar on the topic, so watch for news updates on our webinars. It is a complex question, that is evolving daily. We need to discuss all of these facets, because what is happening in IG right now will set the guidelines for the future of the Internet. It is quite a responsibility for the current world. Keep active, stay involved! What is the most important side of this issue for you? For me, it is transparency: if my world is going to be manipulated and distorted, I want to know the key to the original data.

Comment by Mera Szendro Bok on January 13, 2012 at 4:41pm

I support Keisha's comment 100%, it would be wonderful to commit a workshop (hopefully online) to this topic. Please let me know if you need assistance in planning or getting the word, out, I'm happy to help.

Also for the latest in the cyber security, surveillance, censorship issues that online users are facing, including the fight for internet rights as human rights check out the latest Netizen report: http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2012/01/12/netizen-report-ce...

Comment by Keisha Taylor on January 13, 2012 at 1:05pm

Following Virginia's thought on this I think that it would be good for diplo to have a workshop on & off line, which gives some more policy oriented thoughts on this.

Comment by Poncelet O. Ileleji on January 10, 2012 at 7:50pm

I will say in as much as I concur with a lot of Vinton paper, the real issue is that technology is now a necessity for development just as cars, buses, trains, planes etc have become a necessity.  in Developing countries to move ahead is to have the right technology within your context at your finger tips, when this is in place we sorted, and I think we have examples happening around the Caribbean and Africa especially.

Comment by Diplo IGCBP on January 9, 2012 at 10:00am

For those interested in reading Aldo Matteucci response to Vint Cerf's article, Aldo's blog post can be found here: http://deepdip.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/internet-access-as-human-ri... (and not via the link posted in my previous comment)

Comment by Trevor A. Phipps on January 8, 2012 at 8:20pm
The internet has gone the way of so many ground breaking developments that have become indispensable. We all take for granted that the telephone system, our radio and television stations, electricity, transportation systems are all accessible to most of us on the planet. We cannot bend our minds around the idea of life without them. These technologies proved critical in spreading concepts such as freedom of speech, right to privacy etc. Without the internet we would still have a right to privacy, freedom of speech which are human rights.

Access to telephone, electricity, radio and tv and the internet are vehicles which allow us to share or participate more fully or express our human rights.
Comment by Virginia (Ginger) Paque on January 8, 2012 at 7:07pm

Thanks Keisha. This is another interesting post to add to the debate. I like the way we are bringing the discussions together from various different sources, to try to put this into perspective. This is what I replied to Aldo Matteucci's blog, and the IGC list, and it may work here too. What do the rest of you think about this issue?

What Mr. Cerf said ("Internet access is not a human right" [1]) is not unusual; it is something many of us discuss, even (horrors) agree with. The value of his editorial is in the debate it has catalyzed. While this is a semantic argument, it is an important one that helps us define strategies and approaches as we search for solutions. Here is how I look at it.
Mr. Matteucci makes an excellent point that “'Human rights' are not self-executing: they represent legitimate aspirations – not obligations", and a point he made earlier, “'Freedom of speech' is an abstract right. Its exercise necessarily relies on technologies..." is even more important. 
Under the UN Declaration on Human Rights[2] (UNDHR), we all have a set of inalienable human rights, no matter who we are, no matter where we live. What we may or may not have is the ability to exercise these rights. The exercise of these rights may be legally interrupted because we have broken the law. They may be illegally (or legally in exceptional circumstances) interrupted by government action or decree. Or their exercise may be supported or hindered by selective legal and/or practical implementation. State sovereignty allows each country to establish its own triage to apply their funds and energies as they see fit. We cannot decide for another whether water, food or information are their highest priorities, so their application or practical administration must be a local or regional issue. What the UN and others can do is (attempt to) ensure that the the implementation (exercise) of human rights is not prohibited.
Our rights are protected under the UNDHR. Their exercise, as both Mr. Cerf and Mr. Matteucci agree, often, and in the case of Internet, undoubtedly, rely on technology. Although access to information will help solve other ills, the triage priority assigned to Internet access is not as clear cut as 'breathing, bleeding, beating'. If Finland can manage to make Internet access a legal right, congratulations, and more power to the Finnish.  But if another country must make safe water, food and medicine a higher priority, I can understand that. I think we must be concerned about the hindrance or prohibition of the exercise of any human rights, as we work towards the local implementation, in the way we each have set our priorities.
[1]           New York Times, January 4, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/opinion/internet-access-is-not-a-...
Comment by Keisha Taylor on January 8, 2012 at 3:06pm

His argument is a semantic one. Noone disagrees with the point that technology is an enabler of rights, but that is besides the point. Read this interesting article which dissects this http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2012/01/case-for-and-agai...

Comment by Mera Szendro Bok on January 7, 2012 at 12:24am

For those of you who prefer to share your thoughts on a discussion forum, I've started the group Human Rights and Internet Governance. The first discussion topic is whether Internet Access should be considered a Human Right and I've shared my initial thoughts on the topic. Thanks Ginger for sharing this article and the link of the site, I'm looking forward to reading everyone's responses!

Comment by Diplo IGCBP on January 6, 2012 at 6:58pm

Ginger, thanks for bringing this to our attention. Vint Cerf's op-ed has already stirred plenty of debate across IG circles.

In response to Vint Cerf's article, Aldo Matteucci is asking: 'Does the technology tail wag the human rights dog?' In his blog post, Aldo discusses some misconceptions in V. Cerf's article, and places the discussion on human rights and the Internet in a broader context. Read Aldo's post here: http://deepdip.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/does-the-technology-tail-wa...



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