Why internet access is a basic human right

The UN’s declaration that internet access is a basic human right may sound silly, but its actually a big deal for net neutrality

Why internet access is a basic human right
Credit: Flickr/Backbone Campaign

Not long ago, I wrote a post about net neutrality, agreeing with the U.S. appeals court ruling that broadband internet access was no mere luxury, but a crucial utility—like running water or electricity—and needed to be regulated as such.

It seems now that I didn’t go nearly far enough. The United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution calling unfettered internet access a basic human right.

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The idea behind the UN's non-binding resolution was that the internet has become an essential source of information, commerce and especially freedom of expression—all residents were entitled to net access, or at least to freedom from intentional disruptions and restrictions on it. The key language: “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

That may seem obvious and unnecessary in many environments, but according to Paste, many countries, including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India and South Africa, wanted to water down the resolution. The British organization Article 19, for example, said it was disappointed in countries—especially democracies—trying to “weaken protections for freedom of expression online.”

Around the world, deliberate restrictions on internet access happen all too often. Paste cited recent shutdowns of mobile service in Bahrain surrounding a demonstration and Turkey’s throttling of social media in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks there.

Here in the United States and other Western countries, the issues tend to center around online privacy and security, especially freedom from warrantless surveillance on a mass scale.

Human rights meet net neutrality

But I think it also plays into the issues surrounding net neutrality. If the internet fast lanes are reserved for deep-pocketed corporations that can afford to pay carriers for preferred treatment, smaller independent voices can more easily be drowned out—if not silenced completely. 

The UN resolution is non-binding, and it’s mostly written in bureaucratic-speak that dilutes its moral power. (It’s an off-putting pile of “notings” and “emphasizings” and “deeply concerned.”) But the idea behind it is clear and correct: Despite many parts of the internet infrastructure being owned by private entities, the internet is also a critical public resource important to everyone, and everyone is entitled to access to it.

Of course, that’s ultimately the goal behind net neutrality as well.

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