June 11, 2011

The Internet: A Right and a Responsibility


Good Online is reporting (10 June 2011) that the “U.N. Declares Internet Access a Human Right.”

According to the U.N. report, “The Internet has become a key means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom of expression.”

But as Good points out, this is not just a “third-world concern,” since even in America those without high-speed access cannot adequately perform certain functions “and that surely this affects their ability to get informed, educated, and employed.”

The U.N. is pushing for more protections for people to “assert themselves freely online,” but Good proposes that Internet access means more than just freedom of expression, but also the right to more public Wi-Fi access, better access to technology in libraries and I would assume in schools as well.

Interestingly enough, just on Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg of NYC and AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson announced that as part of NYC’s “Road Map for the Digital City,” they were launching a five-year initiative for free Wi-Fi service at 20 NYC parks—this is seen as a “critical developmental tool” for children, families, and communities.

The Internet stands alone as a technology that is now a “human right.” Radios, televisions, and telephones—none of these have that status. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but the technologies that enable them are not seen as a human right.

Similarly, access to the printing press (i.e. the technology for printing) itself is not a human right—rather, freedom of press (i.e. expression through print) is.

Do we not communicate and express ourselves over radio, TV, telephone, and other technologies as we do over the Internet? Do we not get information from them and through them? Do we not reach out with them to others both nationally and globally as we do over Net?

The answer to all of these is of course, we do.

So what is distinct about the Internet that the mere access to it is declared a human right?

I believe it is the fact that the Internet is the first technology whose very access enables the protection of all the other human rights, since it empowers EVERYONE to hear and speak from and to the masses about what is going in—whether in the tumultuous streets of the Arab Spring to the darkest prisons silencing political dissent.

While radio and television, in their time, were important in getting information and entertainment, but they were essentially unidirectional modes of communication and these can be manipulated by the powers that be. Similarly, the telephone while important to bridging communications over vast distances was for the most part constrained between two or at most a few individuals conversing. And publishing was limited to the realm of the professionals with printing presses.

In contrast, the Internet enables each person to become their own TV producer (think YouTube), radio announcer (think iTunes), telephone operator (think Skype) or publisher (think websites, blogs, wikis, etc.).

The Internet has put tremendous power into the hands of every individual. This is now a declared right. With that right, there is a tremendous responsibility to share information and collaborate with others for the benefit of all.

Of course, as a powerful tool of expression, the Internet can also be used malevolently to express hatred, racism, bigotry, etc. and to malign other people, their thoughts or opinions. Of course, it can also be used to steal, spy, hack, and otherwise disrupt normal civilization.

So we also all have the responsibility to behave appropriately, fairly, and with dignity to each other on the Internet.

While I applaud the U.N. for declaring the Internet a human right, I would like to see this expanded to include both a right and responsibility—this to me would be more balanced and beneficial to building not only access, but also giving and tolerance.

(Photo Source: WorldVisionReport.org)


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