The case: Internet access is a human right
Human rights come from the need to protect individuals from the arbitrary power of the state. Human rights are “international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses.” There have been attempts to codify human rights internationally through agreements particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948. This listed a large number of political, social and economic rights that are supposed to be universally held. Despite this there is no universally followed list of rights and there is the possibility that more human rights may over time become recognised or become necessary where there was not the need before. Internet access is an obvious example of this; the internet was only invented in 1973 and the world wide web in 1989. As the internet has become a vital conduit for information only in the last decade it could not have been considered a human right only a few decades ago.
Just as there is no definitive list of human rights that is universally recognised what exactly the criteria for what a right into a human right is open for dispute. The Human Rights Reference Handbook characterises them as being:
- Inherent in all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone (they do not have, e.g., to be purchased or to be granted so are universal)
- Inalienable (within qualified legal boundaries)
- Equally applicable to all.
Several other features of human rights may also be added to these. They are based upon the relationship between government and the people rather than two individuals, and the responsibility for these rights primarily falls upon the government. They are minimal standards; what we cannot fall below rather than what we would like to have. As they are universal they need to have strong justifications that can apply everywhere so that they can be recognised in all cultures. This potentially provides a high threshold for considering a right to be a human right.
Internet access might be considered a human right in and of itself in which case there is a need for the concept of internet access to meet the above conditions; however it could equally be argued that internet access is already a human right as a part of human rights that already exist, particularly the freedom of expression.
“A human right to internet access is an interesting concept that needs to be explored. It directly relates to how we fulfil the first draft principle “We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.” The internet is the greatest tool of communication invented so far. It is however becoming much more than this but a separate social sphere in itself. A human right to internet access may well be necessary to ensure everyone is able to interact in this sphere.” - Alex Helling
 Sepulveda, Magdalena, Theo van Banning, Gudrun D. Gudmundsdottir, Christine Chamoun and Willem J.M. van Genugten eds., Human Rights Reference Handbook, Third edition, University for Peace, 2004, p.6
Access to the internet can be considered a separate human right in and of itself. The UN special rapporteur in June 2011 published a report that implied that access to the internet is a human right “The Special Rapporteur remains concerned that legitimate online expression is being criminalized in contravention of States' international human rights obligations.”
The right to internet access can meet the necessary conditions to be a human right; as a right is should be universal, everyone should have access not just a few. The internet is becoming much more than just a tool but is becoming a fundamental part of society creating a new sphere of interaction that everyone has a right to have access to.
Creating a right to internet access would be addressing a specific contemporary problem as with other human rights that are specific such as a right to basic schooling, enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Not having access to the internet is similar to not having basic schooling; it considerably narrows people’s options and their horizons. As Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the world wide web, argues "Given the many ways the web is crucial to our lives and our work, disconnection is a form of deprivation of liberty."
 La Rue, Frank, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Human Rights Council, Seventeenth session, A/HRC/17/27, 16 May 2011, p.10.
Creating a human right specifically for internet access is an example of ‘human rights inflation’ where by every group wants their issue to be a human right and as a result human rights that are not necessary or are too specific begin to devalue the whole concept of human rights. While there may be a new ‘society’ operating online the internet is certainly not essential for the existence of society. An online society is an interesting distraction for people and indeed there are many who spend immense amounts of time cultivating virtual relationships but this virtual sphere does not need a human right to enable it to continue. The internet is in some ways a free for all and there have already been internet social networks that have collapsed or been taken offline. This may be disruptive for those who relied on this network as their online society but they can simply find another. If unable to access the internet they still have access to other forms of society in the real world. Thus while forming and taking part in society is fundamental for humanity that this should be possible online is not.
In our traditional human rights there is a hole when it comes to a right to receive and be able to seek out information. Almost everyone would consider freedom of speech and freedom of expression to be human rights but these rights are not very effective if there is not a way for those who wish to access that information. Michael L Best contends that Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights on freedom of expression implies some symmetry but that freedom of authorship is privileged over freedom of readership. In short governments could allow freedom of expression while ensuring that those expressing dissenting views have a very minimal audience without breaking human rights.
A right to the internet is the perfect human right to fill this gap. The internet is estimated to have over 35 billion web pages, and the most recent digital universe study estimates that 1.8 trillion gigabytes would be created in 2011. The sheer size of the internet means that it is the ideal medium for providing this right to access information. The internet is also increasingly accessible to everyone making it possible to be considered universal; it is no longer something that the poor cannot hope to have access to. There are already over 2.1 billion people using the internet worldwide including 118 million in Africa.
 Best, Michael L., ‘Can the Internet be a Human Right?’ Human Rights and Human Welfare, Vol.4 2004, p.23 (n.b. this link comes up with a warning when opened, dont worry it is safe - ahelling)
The freedom of speech does not mean that there is a right to reach as broad an audience as possible. It does not mean there is a fundamental right to access the internet or any other individual medium of communication. If indeed there is some kind of ‘gap’ in human rights it does not mean that it has to be filled by creating some spurious new right for individuals to enjoy. If there was a lack of recognition of a freedom of readership then this is because there is no need for the human right to exist let alone in a form that privileges access to the internet over other forms of information access.
Freedom of expression and speech and freedom of information is a fundamental freedom and is article 19 in the universal declaration of human rights. This is usually taken to have three parts for governments to uphold: a duty to respect, for the government not to interfere with the freedom to impart information, a duty to protect, preventing interference with lawful communications and, a duty to fulfil, a duty to provide government held information. Access to the internet falls within this. The duty to respect means that governments cannot block access for people wishing to use the internet to express themselves. The duty to protect means government should prevent others from interfering with internet users and the duty to fulfil could easily be taken just a little bit further to having to provide access to the internet. Freedom of expression therefore covers a freedom to access the internet as it already provides for a freedom to access mediums to express ones’ self.
 Callamard, Agnes, ‘Towards a Third Generation of Activism for the Right to Freedom of Information’, in Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People, UNESCO, 2009 pp.43-57. p.44
This is taking the freedom of expression too far. A freedom to impart information does not mean the freedom to impart it through whatever medium the individual wishes simply through a method of communication. It is also taking it too far to consider that the government has a duty to prevent others from interfering with individual’s access as this is impractical. Governments should not have the power to interfere with private businesses that may wish to deny internet users access for things like not paying their bills. The third interpretation is interpreting this freedom much too broadly, human rights are meant to prevent the government from oppressing their citizens rather than forcing government to provide something.
There is clearly not universal or even widespread acceptance of the idea that internet access should be a human right. Human rights are dependent upon the state, the desires of the community, and that depends upon the state’s socio economic context. The internet cannot therefore be considered a universal human right because not all states are advanced enough to take responsibility for this right.
International law is based upon several sources; state practice, customary law, treaties and judicial decisions. None of these sources yet recognise internet access as a human right, indeed if state practice is taken as deciding if human rights exist then the whole concept of human rights is open to question.
 Turkin, G., Theory of International Law, 1974, p.81
 Shaw, Malcolm N., International Law 4th ed., Cambridge University press, 1997, Chapter 3.
 Watson, J.S., Legal theory, efficacy and validity in the development of human rights norms in international law, University of Illinois law forum, 1979, p.609
Human rights are meant to protect the individual from the state rather than being dependent upon the state. The state cannot decide what these human rights are and can only constrain human rights if it is necessary to protect the human rights of another. Human rights are necessary precisely because states ignore the freedoms of their citizens so often. The sources of international law are irrelevant when referring to human rights as these are a higher law natural law that overrides a system of international law that has been created only over the last couple of hundred years.
 Brown, Chris, ‘Human rights’, in John Baylis and Steve smith The globalization of world politics 2nd ed Oxford University Press 2001, pp.599-614 p.604
If a human right is inherent and inalienable then if something is to be a human right it has to be freely available for all rather than being much more available to those who are rich. The internet however is a commodity. We are charged for access to it and can be cut off for not paying our bills. We are charged more to be able to download more, in effect to have greater access to this human right. There has never been any suggestion that the equally great media advances of TV and telephones are technologies worthy of being considered a human right. As with the internet these increased the ability to express opinions to a wide audience, they helped democratise news and making it much more international. They meant that human rights violations could be much more easily told to the world in much the same way the internet does.
Being a human right does not prevent commoditization going alongside this. Everyone has a right to own property, as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, but it is accepted that property is also valuable in a commercial sense. Or more generally everyone has a right to shelter and this means that governments provide council housing and shelters for the homeless at the same time as houses often having very high prices. The human right is for a very basic level while those who wish can pay for more.
The internet is an enabler and so has little value on its own. No one would consider the internet a human right if there was no content or information on the internet, what good would be a right to stare at a screen? It is not therefore access to the internet that is the human right it is access to information. The internet is obviously useful for this but it is not essential. If someone was denied access to the internet while being locked in a library would he or she really have had any right to information infringed? In such a case the only argument for a right to the internet is that it faster to access the information through the internet than it would be to look it up in the books that are all around. There cannot therefore be considered to be a right to the internet even as part of any right to information because the right to information would simply require that a government provides access to this information not that it has to be via the internet. Moreover as an enabling technology it is quite possible that the internet may at some point be out of date and replaces by some new method of storing information. As something that is transitory it does not make sense to consider there to be any kind of inalienable right to the internet.
The conduit to access information is just as important as the information itself. There is little point in the information if we are cut off from the flows of that information and are unable to access it. Having immense libraries may be an alternative method of accessing information for some but only for a tiny minority. As human rights are concerned with access to everybody the right an egalitarian method that allows everyone to access the information is needed just as much as the right to access the information. There is little point in a right to information without a corresponding right to access the internet or some other equally egalitarian method of obtaining that information.
If human rights are inalienable and inherent in humans then no technology can be a human right as not everyone can ever expect access all of the time. Certainly at the moment huge swathes of the world have no internet access and this does not mean that their governments are violating their human rights.
The analogy might be given to freedom of movement. Freedom of movement is a human right however we don’t need the aid of a car to be able to exercise this right the technology itself is unnecessary as we have an inherent ability to move just as we do to communicate.
Human rights are as much aspirational as they are fact. When the universal declaration of human rights came out the majority of people in the world did not have “the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Having the internet as a human right will increase access as it makes it more difficult for governments to deny access and increases the priority to provide access.
Ash, Timothy Garton, 'Tim Berners-Lee on 'stretch friends' and open data', Free Speech Debate, 22 June 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Berners-Lee-transcript-pdf.pdf
Best, Michael L., ‘Can the Internet be a Human Right?’ Human Rights and Human Welfare, Vol.4 2004, https://daniels.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/volumes/2004/best-2004.pdf
Bleisch, Barbara, ‘The human right to water – normative foundations and ethical implications’, Ethics and Economics, 4 (2), 2006, https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/jspui/bitstream/1866/3383/1/2006v4n2_BLEISCH.pdf
Brown, Chris, ‘Human rights’, in John Baylis and Steve smith The globalization of world politics 2nd ed Oxford University Press 2001, pp.599-614
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Callamard, Agnes, ‘Towards a Third Generation of Activism for the Right to Freedom of Information’, in Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People, UNESCO, 2009 pp.43-57. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001803/180312e.pdf
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Sepulveda, Magdalena, Theo van Banning, Gudrun D. Gudmundsdottir, Christine Chamoun and Willem J.M. van Genugten eds., Human Rights Reference Handbook, Third edition, University for Peace, 2004, http://www.hrea.org/erc/Library/display_doc.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hrc.upeace.org%2Ffiles%2Fhuman%2520rights%2520reference%2520handbook.pdf&external=N p.6
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