Pugwash wonders whether internet use is a human right

At last week’s meeting, Pugwash joined Students for Science and Technology Policy to discuss whether the internet is a human right.

The question of what constitutes a right was key to the discussion. The United Nations (UN) has a list of human rights, including rights to life, liberty, and security, the right not to be discriminated against, and the rights to work, to have an adequate standard of living, and to education, to name a few. Does the internet belong on such a list?

One of the main uses of the UN list is as criteria for aid. Global organizations like the International Monetary Fund see the list as a set of checkboxes that need to be ticked off. If a country doesn’t meet the list of rights, they either won’t get aid or their development projects will come with the caveat that they have to work on improving those rights. The internet doesn’t seem to be something that a country should be required to have in order to receive international aid.

This suggested that rights are the things necessary to live a productive life. In developed countries, the internet is an extremely important tool, both in personal and business settings. How can someone be expected to apply for a job without an email address?

The internet is also very useful as an educational tool. However, these uses are context-dependent. Maybe in the United States, an email address is required to apply for a job, but it doesn’t seem necessary for a farmer in rural Africa, for example. Whether the internet is necessary to function in society depends on the society, and a geographically-dependent right doesn’t seem like a right at all.
This is especially true when one considers all the other fundamentals needed before internet becomes useful. internet access requires electricity, and it would be nice to have other things too, like clean drinking water or adequate shelter. If a country doesn’t have all those things, it doesn’t seem justified for them to put in a request for internet access before addressing the other issues.
However, just because the internet isn’t required to live, doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be a right.

Rights can be seen as the basic necessities needed to survive, but humans can live without justice, or liberty, or love.

There’s a lot that can be taken away, and people will make do without. This doesn’t mean that those things shouldn’t be considered rights.

With the distinction between necessities to live and other things that would be nice to have, maybe rights should be ranked or put into some sort of hierarchical structure. First, basic necessities like food, water, and shelter should be met. Education, religion, and other less tangible rights would come next.

As one Pugwash member put it, by splitting up rights to live and rights to thrive there might be room for the internet without making the very idea of the right seem frivolous. There were some ideas that didn’t include the internet at a basic human right. One was to treat the internet as a public utility, instead of a right. This would mean that while it’s not a required aspect of human existence, if it is present, it has to be fairly distributed and accessible. This would prevent monopolies, like Facebook’s initiative in developing countries, in which Facebook would provide internet access for free but it would be limited to select websites chosen by Facebook. It would also address issues like internet providers in the United States giving preferential or unfair treatment to certain users.

Another idea was that while the internet itself isn’t intrinsically a human right, it could be contextualized as such through the extensions of other rights. The right to education might require access to online resources, or there might be a right to access public information, which would make internet access a very important way to provide that right.

Similarly, a right to the internet could be drawn out of the right to free speech. And a divide between those who can access the internet and those who can’t might lead to internet access becoming a discrimination issue.

While the discussion was, for the most part, relatively abstract and philosophical, one Pugwashite made sure to point out that this isn’t just theoretical hair-splitting.

Right here in Pennsylvania, there are laws that make it hard for local or city governments to provide free or cheap internet access to their residents.

Whether the internet is a right or not is an important question with real-life consequences.