Is internet access a human right?

Recent IP-related debates have raised the question of whether internet access should be a legally protected human right. An Australian academic is the latest to weigh in:

Internet use has become so woven into everyday life that some technology experts say online access should be legally protected, even to the point of considering it a human right. “It’s a social inclusion question,” said Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile

Much of the debate premises that internet access is already a human right, or soon will be. That view has popular support – a recent survey showed “almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right” (FWIW, New Zealand’s previous Culture Minister also thought so). That result should not be surprising though: the right to do non-proscribed things can usually be considered a human right in some form.

[ Update: current ICT minister Steven Joyce says “declaring that the internet is a human right is not a priority for the government”. ]

The real question is whether internet access – which in the absence of any restriction already is a right – should be elevated to a “legally protected human right”, and what would that mean in practice? Internet access is already legally enshrined in some countries. But should it be? Do we need it to be? We all happily rely on access to water, electricity, sanitation, and food without the need to see these rights written into law. So why internet access?

The fact is, New Zealand already has strong free speech and anti-discrimination laws providing a very high level of protection:

  • Under section 44 of the Human Rights Act, it is illegal for any person or company to refuse to provide service to any person on a wide range of discriminatory grounds, including sex, race, political & religious opinions, etc.
  • Freedom of expression, including the rights to “seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind”, is enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

In any case, there is no shortage of ISPs happy to provide access to anyone who’s willing to pay. Why would any ISP not want to provide service to a paying customer, unless they themselves were being harmed in some way?

If the right to internet access were “enshrined”, what would the practical result be?

  • If a customer didn’t pay their bill, would the ISP be prevented from stopping their service?
  • Would ISPs be unable to enforce terms of use?
  • Would prisoners be able to surf the net all day?
  • Would parents and schools be unable to prevent children from accessing certain sites?

If the aim is to prevent Government censorship or disconnection of user accounts (such as s92A of the Copyright Act), new legislation is not needed to achieve that. Instead, the repeal of the offending legislation is the answer. New Zealand does not have a constitution capable of striking down laws, so any specific legislation expressly providing the right could be limited by another law. Similarly, all rights protected by the Bill of Rights Act are subject to “reasonable limits“. Whether this is an acceptable state of affairs is another question – especially in our unicameral MMP system with a history (in the prior government at least) of ramming through constitutional changes, without a mandate, on a simple majority.

As regards the disconnection sanction of s92A, this is not about being “banned from the internet” any more than it is about banning free speech. Free speech itself has some limitations (even in the US), and certainly consequences in many cases (e.g. defamation). Does internet access need to be elevated above free speech? Besides, internet disconnection as a preferred strategy of some rights-holder groups is not likely to last long. It is more smoke than fire, and is easily avoidable. When the internet becomes the only means of distributing music, movies and other IP, disconnecting – rather than “reforming” – potential customers will make little sense.

In the end, the internet is simply a (very important) technological invention. It should no more need enshrinement in law as a “fundamental right” than the right to use a telephone. Besides breaking the desirable “technology neutrality” of law, this would also seem to be a case of  “rights inflation“:

Deciding which norms should be counted as human rights is a matter of some difficulty. And there is continuing pressure to expand lists of human rights to include new areas. Many political movements would like to see their main concerns categorized as matters of human rights, since this would publicize, promote, and legitimate their concerns at the international level. A possible result of this is “human rights inflation,” the devaluation of human rights caused by producing too much bad human rights currency (Cranston 1973, Orend 2002, Wellman 1999, Griffin 2001b).

Effort is better spent on protecting existing rights, and limiting the power of government. Upper house anyone?

3 thoughts on “Is internet access a human right?

  1. Pingback: Law and technology » Blog Archive » Is internet access a human right? | Today Headlines

  2. Pingback: it.gen.nz » Broadband as a Human Right

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