Is Internet Access A Human Right?

Various websites are reporting a study for the BBC in which 79% of respondents (27,000 people around the world) say that Internet access is a fundamental human right. The BBC report itself is here, and the full report in PDF is here. Tech sites such as PC Pro report it, too.

Much as I love techie stuff, I think we have to be careful about our language. I find it interesting that the lively comments on the PC Pro report are not all fawning agreement. The idea of net access as a fundamental right is described as ‘hogwash’ by one commenter and ‘a privilege’ by another.

The point in the report is one about communication. Here is one extract from the BBC news report:

“The right to communicate cannot be ignored,” Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), told BBC News.

“The internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created.”

He said that governments must “regard the internet as basic infrastructure – just like roads, waste and water”.

“We have entered the knowledge society and everyone must have access to participate.”

We need to communicate. The Internet is now fundamental to that. Ergo, internet access is a fundamental human right.

‘Rights language’ is all around us. Have you noticed how politicians, when they describe some improvement in welfare or health provision, say it is what people deserve? Gordon Brown certainly does. It’s on a par with the execrable ‘Because I’m worth it’ adverts.

Am I alone in being bothered by the use of ‘human rights’ language? By the looks of those PC Pro comments, I’m not. Just to raise a doubt about human rights language today is to risk being labelled as an oppressor, but from a Christian perspective it needs challenging. In fact, I would argue such terms are used recklessly and thoughtlessly by Christians.

Why? Because – as the late Lesslie Newbigin argued – the language of human rights is secular. It arises in a post-Enlightenment society where faith in God had been relegated to the private sphere. In the public, ‘secular’ discourse, humankind was the highest rank of creature and virtually deified. Rights language is about what belongs to deities, Newbigin said. Therefore, to speak of human rights is to talk in idolatrous terms.

To many ears, this will be shocking. How else do we protect some basics of human existence? But would it not be better from a Christian perspective to speak of human dignity (because we are made in the image of God) and human need? Welfare and health provision – to return to the example of politicians – are issues of dignity and need. The ability to communicate – as Dr Touré indicates – is pretty basic to human life. Whether we all need to communicate in every which way is debatable, of course, but the fundamental need is there. If society becomes so dependent upon information via the Internet, then Christians may perceive that the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor could be a moral issue.

However, we probably need to qualify the link between the Internet and information. Firstly, it isn’t entirely the case – surely we’re not going to dignify everything from Facebook status updates to pornography with the label of ‘information’. Secondly, ‘information’ is an insufficient category for Christians. What we value is ‘wisdom’, which is more than a pile of facts: it is what moral choices we are going to make and live with those facts, in the light of God. And that is even more basic to human flourishing than information.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on March 9, 2010, in Culture, Current Affairs, Web/Tech and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Great post!

    I was groaning when I first saw the title “Is Internet Access a Human Right?” but was pleasantly surprised to see you make the case that I couldn’t agree more with! So much talk of “rights” today and little talk of “responsibility”.

    Noticed that you are a minister. Definitely would be interested in hearing some of your sermons and other thoughts. I’m going to have to give your blog a closer look.

    Thanks for the thoughts & God bless!

    Like

    • Dave Faulkner

      Andy,

      Welcome here and thanks for the kind comments!

      I normally post a text version of Sunday’s sermon here on Saturday nights, BTW.

      God bless you, too!

      Like

  2. apocalypsecakes

    Of course it is. It’s just like my right to trade my Bang & Olufsen speakers for crack, steal your underwear and monopolize the public telephone to demand that Apple support come and fix my oven.

    http://apocalypsecakes.wordpress.com

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  3. Internet as a right may seem preposterous to some, especially when most of the world got along fine without it less than two decades ago. However, it seems that it has become a necessity for modern life. Maybe people don’t have it in their homes, but it’s hard to go though the day without encountering something that the internet made happen. Perhaps the Internet has progressed to becoming a sort of “public good”, like electricity.
    I don’t know if the case is being made for “free access to the internet”, but I think that’s a different question. Maybe we should be asking: should everyone have access to the internet at a reasonable rate (like electricity), and when would it be wrong for it to be taken away?

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    • Dave Faulkner

      Eric,

      Welcome here and thanks for the constructive comment. I find your use of terms like ‘necessity’ and ‘public good’ much more helpful than the language of rights. Indeed, perhaps Dr Touré, whom I quoted in the post, might even be thinking like this when he talks about infrastructure, but uses slapdash language?

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  4. Hmmm tough issue!

    I will say that the “right to communicate” arguement seems a bit out of left field… not having internet access doesn’t prevent you from having a conversation or making a phone call. It also seems that, if anything, internet usage has lowered our communication skills significantly. I often send e-mails to people in my office when I could easily just get off my butt and walk over to them.

    The “information” argument is very valid, if someday we become entirely dependent on internet resources and leave books behind.

    Thanks for the post! Very thought-provoking!

    Like

    • Dave Faulkner

      Hi Lau,

      Welcome here and thanks for your thoughtful observations. We can certainly end up lowering other communications skills through the Internet, and indeed it can be quite attractive to more introverted personalities. (That’s a hobbyhorse, BTW: you’ll find I occasionally write about issues of Myers-Briggs and personality type here.)

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  5. In this brave new world of information the assertion of internet access as a right is simply a exercise in newspeak. The internet is not the wireless equivalent of haranguing people in Hyde Park. It is more the equivalent of wearing a sandwich board down a city street. Access to the city street is only limited by your willingness to walk. Access to the information highway is not limited to any person who is willing to plug in and participate. However, on a city street or on the information highway, no one has any obligation to read your sandwich board or look at your site. One does not have a right to be heard. If what one speaks fails to merit the attention of others, one must either do a better job of attracting attention or else be ignored. One does not have a right to command attention.

    As far as the internet is concerned, the farther away from it the government stays the better. Any effort to run the internet like infrastructure will lead to less net freedom and more net restriction by those whose interest flip the switches.

    Refusal to adopt a vocabulary of newspeak may result in reckless and thoughtless labeling. Once upon a time just that consequence followed when Believers lifted up Jesus in a fallen world. The verdict of history is that they turned a upside down world right side up.

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    • Dave Faulkner

      Hi Earl,

      Welcome to you too, and thanks for your thoughtful contribution as well. I’m with you all the way when you say, One does not have a right to be heard. People have to earn the right to speak and be heard. The way we do that isn’t always possible on the Internet. It’s about a consistent, compassionate lifestyle.

      As for government and the Internet, I’m rather torn. I’m not a libertarian, but on the other hand most of what I see from governments regarding the net seems shot through with idiocy. I don’t know what country you’re from, but here in the UK there is a bill before Parliament at present that drops clanger after clanger.

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  6. While I should probably do some follow-up research before spouting off in response to this article, I can’t help but play devil’s advocate in an attempt to think this through:

    Although computers are, of course, an asset that may require substantial financial outlay, as are ISPs, etc., I can’t help but feel that in principle, as a creation of collective human effort and ingenuity, the internet is a very important resource for humanity. Like written language (ie. books), art, automobiles, and shoes, the Web is an advancement that enriches our existence and has enormous potential to improve our individual lives, and also to pool our seperate resources in a kind of exponential collaborative effort, for the greater benefit of humanity (ie. Wikipedia).

    Consider the Tower of Babel, if you want to talk religion. The internet is becoming a way for humanity to cross the boundaries of geography and culture (granted, not always for the better). But if free speech is an agreed-upon human right, then isn’t the internet just an exponential variety of that? And if we people are created in God’s image, and God is all-knowing, then doesn’t the internet bring us, through the exercize of our intelligence and creativity (granted by the Creator), that much closer to fulfilling our potential , nay our destinies, to be more like Him(Her)?

    Like

    • Dave Faulkner

      Hi,

      Welcome to you as well, and thanks for playing devil’s advocate. I appreciate your help in working this through together. Indeed, that’s one of the things I appreciate about the best of the Internet – the collaboration, and hence why I (like you, I assume) am a fan of Wikipedia, whatever cheap shots can be aimed at its weaknesses.

      Whatever my reservations about the language of human rights, we do seem to be moving in certain quarters towards the Internet as being intrinsic to people’s lives (something some of my elderly church members can’t always understand). We see that in initiatives from the One Laptop Per Child project to the British Government wanting to establish a minimum connection speed for every home. However, the cost factors that you mention come into play big time in this.

      As to your last point, it reminds me slightly of what some of the great scientists of religious persuasion have said down the centuries – namely, that they saw their work as thinking God’s thoughts after him. Of course, a specifically Christian understanding of this will also want to bring into play the notion of human fallenness and that hence even our knowledge and understanding is in some way tainted by sin. Not that that is a reason to be anti-intellectual, of course!

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  7. I’m not so convinced that “the language of human rights is secular”. At least, I see the same concepts in the Bible, and even the same words in TNIV: “I have the right to do anything” in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23. Yes, here Paul is quoting what the Corinthians wrote. But he is not dissenting from it; rather, he is agreeing with the principle but showing how these rights should be exercised in a Christian context. Indeed I would suggest that “rights” are more of a Christian concept than “authority” (indeed I have argued that the latter is not really Christian), and that the Greek word exousia is more about rights than authority.

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    • Peter,

      That’s a fascinating and helpful response (as always!). You are the Greek scholar, not me, but although I use a TNIV in my daily devotions (and NRSV for preaching), I am surprised at the thought of 1 Corinthians 6:12 being translated ‘I have the right‘. I thought ‘permissible’ was a more common English word used here, and I got Thiselton’s shorter commentary on 1 Corinthians down from the shelf to see what he said. He opts for ‘liberty’. If you have further thoughts on the Greek translation, I’d appreciate your insights. As for the ‘authority’ issue, you won’t be surprised to know that as another ‘egalitarian’ on gender issues, I see that in a very similar way to you!

      So far as I recall it. Newbigin’s point in ‘Foolishness to the Greeks’ about human rights language is that – with God language relegated to the private sphere in the Enlightenment and humankind thus on the ‘throne’, there is nothing left in the public narrative about sin against a holy God and the need for grace, nor is there the concept of being stewards who are answerable to God. All that is left is my rights and what I deserve. In those terms at least, I find human rights language rather different from the Scriptures.

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      • I would like to look into this more, but just at the moment time …

        I agree that it goes against the Scriptures to demand one’s rights as what one deserves, and minimise one’s sin. But that sounds rather like what the Corinthians were doing, and so not something new at the Enlightenment. But then Newbigin’s book title suggests that he too was looking at 1 Corinthians.

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  8. Knowledge is power.. Libraries have always been fundamental to civic discourse.. The net has become the world’s library – due in part to economics.

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    • Hi Robert,

      Welcome here and thanks for taking the trouble to comment. Yes, in terms of knowledge and information the Internet has become indispensable for a massive chunk of humankind. It’s just that I’d prefer the language of ‘necessity’ rather than ‘rights’.

      Having said that, words such as ‘Knowledge is power‘ cut both ways, don’t they? They can form a positive statement about personal and corporate empowerment, but a postmodern suspicion of power might well interpret them negatively, as a way of including some and excluding others. However, whatever my misgivings about the BBC-commissioned report, I assume this is a clarion call for general inclusion, rather than exclusion.

      Like

  9. Oh… Well said.

    I really like your post. It is certainly true that people nowadays are getting insensitive in using terminologies. Some words had left it’s true meaning, like sin, god as well as rights (human rights). Thanks for bringing this to the surface! :)

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  10. An interesting post. A few things spring to mind … It occurs to me that one could have made the argument for other technologies being ‘rights’ as they came into being – radios, telephones, televisions, mobile phones etc. I have never seen television as a human right: I see the freedom to purchase and watch a television as what one might call a ‘natural right’ – deriving from the notion of freedom (which itself is often called a right, but is not – for what so-called ‘free’ society on earth would open the prison gates? My point there is that some rights that we often kid ourselves are absolute are in fact negotiable: if you do something bad enough, the system sends you to prison, and you lose your freedom; therefore freedom is not a right under that system.) … Anyway, getting back to the point, I believe that the internet is cheap enough that government and society do not need to worry about providing cheaper access. (In the UK, even among lifetime benefit users, supposedly the poorest of the poor, it’s not a surprise to see wide-screen televisions and subscriptions to satellite channels – those of them who are bothered could exchange these for a cut-price computer and internet connection.) The main point is that we already have the right to use the internet, if not the right to use it without paying. I think this is fine.

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    • Hi,

      Welcome and thanks for the comment. It seems to me you are delineating a difference between a ‘right’ and a ‘freedom’. That – along with my biblical discussion above with Peter Kirk – seems to be an important issue to tease out more.

      Like

  11. I really don’t see the connection with god-related things… tho I am pro to the fact that communication it’s a right and it should be free for everyone.
    Thanks for posting!

    Like

    • Hi,

      Welcome here and thanks for taking the trouble to comment. The ‘god-related things’ – well, I talk in that frame of reference because I’m a Christian and I refer my thinking back to my core beliefs. Others may work from other philosophies or narratives, or a patchwork of them, but that’s simply where I’m coming from.

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  12. Hmm. I think I might be in a minority here but I think that there are some things that are basic human rights and are worth defending. For instance I think the right to be free from slavery is an important one and what about the right to not be abused by someone else? We don’t live in a world where we can isolate ourselves from others and sometimes human rights are essential to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

    I think that we who live in countries where our rights have been protected for generations forget about the human cost and struggle involved in gaining those rights in the first place.

    For instance, I hate strikes and seldom see why they happen but I think the ability to strike (withhold labour where workers are being treated unjustly) must be protected as a basic human right.

    The issue of making Internet access a human right is not an appeal to give everyone a computer and some way of connecting, it is about equality and freedom of access. There are several countries that are filtering content and not allowing free access to the Internet. There are still some countries where web access is just too expensive. There are plenty of people in countries all around the world that cannot participate on the same level as other people just because they don’t have access to the information others do on the web.

    Even in our own country there is inequality between those who live in a City and those who live in the Countryside.

    I’m sure you wouldn’t want to suggest that equality was not a basic human right.

    The Internet is fast becoming an essential to gaining information and for business, it isn’t a toy for the lazy or those who want to indulge their own weaknesses. The world is already skewed in favour of some and with the Internet fast becoming an essential tool it would seem unfortunate to not try and address this in some way.

    If the web were just some toy like a Wii or iPhone then I would agree but the Internet is the most important development for the world since the printing press (maybe even more important). Just as I think education and access to books is a basic human right so I also think the Internet is.

    This issue is certainly not about lazy people who just can’t be bothered to get a job and pay for the things we ‘normal’ people enjoy it is about making something that is now essential for some basic communication available to all.

    Yes, Internet access should be a human right.

    Like

    • Chris,

      Thanks for this comment, too. I guess some of the commenters are arguing that Internet access is a kind of luxury and the more our society develops the more I would disagree with that. It’s especially important for Christians, for whom the issue of communication is central (although we must recognise that different styles of communication often in some subtle way actually change the content, too).

      The point from which I began is more about the uncritical use of ‘rights’ language, as if it makes us sovereign, rather than God. I have no problem at all if by that what we really mean is something that is a necessity for life, an essential freedom. If I read you aright, that is, I think, what you are arguing, but please correct me if I am wrong.

      Like

  13. So, the late Bishop J.E. Lesslie Newbigin says that the language of human rights is secular, does he! And he says that to speak of human rights is to talk in idolatrous terms. And you agree with him, in this particularly nasty, obnoxious, self aggrandising, mean hearted, begrudging, irrelevant little post.

    There’s a very good reason why every educated person in the world today has heard of Desmond Tutu, and very few people have ever heard of Lesslie Newbigin. As for you, I regret having stumbled onto your blog, and I certainly won’t be back.

    Long may you and Newbigin skulk in ignominious obscurity.

    Like

    • Julia,

      That’s a knee-jerk reaction. I am entirely in favour of protecting the dignity of all human beings, especially the weak and the vulnerable. The problem with rights language, according to Newbigin, is that it goes way beyond the protection of human dignity to an elevation of the human race to a virtually godlike status – hence the idolatry language. By all means disagree with me, but please at least read carefully what has been said before firing off your vitriol.

      Like

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