In 2011, the United Nations released a report which said, among other things, that it is against international law as well as a human rights violation to disconnect people from the internet. The report was published in response to two countries, the United Kingdom and France, who both had passed laws to remove repeat copyright offenders from the internet entirely.
But arising from this U.N. declaration were many questions from both sides of the fence, and the common question being asked from both sides is whether internet access is and/or should be considered to be a human right.
How Human Rights Work
It may seem simple at the outset: an established body of international law represents us as far as our aspirations for dignity and autonomy are concerned. Each state is bound by this law and, as such, must develop individual laws and policies that are in line with those set out by the international body.
But where things can get complicated is when changes occur in culture, people and societies as a whole. Government systems also change, as do technologies. So what is represented under human rights must also change if the rights of the people are to continue to be accurately reflected.
Human Rights and the Internet, According to Advocates
Those who support the idea of internet access as a human right say that the internet is an integral part of all being able to have access to the health, education, employment and other information that they need in order to maintain their quality of life.
Advocates say the internet is a vast web of knowledge and information. Because of this, they assert, it is inseparable from our right to association and expression. And so denying anyone access to it is equal to denying their association and expression; a direct violation of human rights.
As the Opposition Sees It
According to those who oppose the thought of internet access being a human right, technology isn’t a right in itself; it is an enabler of rights, or a means to obtaining those things that increase the quality of our lives. What does this mean, exactly? Put simply, the opposition does agree with the advocates that a human right is something that people require in order to lead lives that are both healthy and meaningful. They just don’t believe that any technology, internet or otherwise, should be placed in what they feel is essentially the sacred position of a human right.
The opposition warns that, should we start placing things like technology under the label of human rights, it will lead to us becoming skewed about what we value. One example used was the fact that at one time, making a living was very difficult unless one had a horse. But each person didn’t have the right to a horse; they did, however, have the right to make a living.
The Role of Engineers
Although stated by those who oppose the idea of internet access as a human right, it’s may be that both sides agree on at least one thing: that engineers have a significant role to play in how we exercise our human rights.
Engineers have two main obligations: to empower users, and ensure their safety while they’re online. This could include protection from invaders like computer viruses. Along with engineers, it is said that the associations which set the standards engineers follow are also responsible for overseeing the creation and maintenance of the new technology that we use to reach our goals and aspirations in life.
Although no solid solution or conclusion about whether or not internet access is a human right may be forthcoming, the argument can certainly get one thinking. And perhaps those things which are most important in life will bubble to the surface as a result of that thinking.
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Guest author Jodi Grant writes on a variety of topics related to technology. She helps consumers locate internet service in their neighborhoods and provides a simple methodology for comparing available options.