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.