The United Nations counts internet access as a basic human right in a report that bears implications both to on-going events in the Arab Spring and to the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers. Acting as special rapporteur, a human rights watchdog role appointed by the UN Secretary General, Frank La Rue takes a hard line on the importance of the internet as "an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress." Presented to the General Assembly on Friday, La Rue's report comes as the capstone of a year's worth of meetings held between La Rue and local human rights organizations around the world, from Cairo to Bangkok. The report's introduction points to the impact of online collaboration in the Arab Spring and says that "facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States."
The UN report overwhelmingly supports the internet as a communication platform, a boon to all democratic societies, but it also warns how the internet's unique architecture threatens power brokers in those societies:
The vast potential and benefits of the Internet are rooted in its unique characteristics, such as its speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. At the same time, these distinctive features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in "real time" and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures.
Stacked against the administration's assault on whistleblowers, La Rue's warnings are condemning:
The Special Rapporteur remains concerned that legitimate online expression is being criminalized in contravention of States' international human rights obligations, whether it is through the application of existing criminal laws to online expression, or through the creation of new laws specifically designed to criminalize expression on the Internet. Such laws are often justified as being necessary to protect individuals' reputation, national security or to counter terrorism. However, in practice, they are frequently used to censor content that the Government and other powerful entities do not like or agree with.
La Rue acknowledges the logistical barriers that some nations face when it comes to delivering internet service. Without the proper infrastructure, some nations simply can't engage the internet as the "revolutionary" and "interactive medium" it's proven itself to be. However, all nations should make plans to offer universal access and also maintain policy that won't limit access for political purposes. In doing so, La Rue calls on governments to decriminalize defamation, do away with real-name registration systems--including the parameters in Facebook's terms and conditions that allows governments to collect users' names and passwords--and restrict rights only in the face of an imminent threat.
The United Nations' strong position on anonymity online reads like a hat tip to WikiLeaks and its campaign for transparency, but it also sounds scolding towards governments like the United States' that have waged wars against transparency. Likening the Obama administration's increasing number of convictions using old treason laws against information leakers is censorship in no uncertain terms, the UN seems to say. And the government's bad track record of protecting this type of free expression is ideologically just as bad as shutting the internet down altogether.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.