The Case for (and Against) Internet as a Human Right

Vint Cerf is ruffling nerds' feathers with his Thursday op-ed in The New York Times that claims in almost trollish fashion: "Internet Is Not a Human Right."

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Vint Cerf is ruffling nerds' feathers with his Thursday op-ed in The New York Times that claims in almost trollish fashion: "Internet Is Not a Human Right." This is funny (and incendiary) because Vint Cerf is sort of the guy who invented the Internet. That was in 1969 when Cerf worked as a principal programmer on the Pentagon's ARPANET project and helped to connect the very first two nodes of what would grow to become the Internet as we know it. Now that the Internet is a tool that spawns revolutions, creates empires and hosts way too many very cute pictures of kittens, the United Nations is pushing to make Internet access a human right. And now Cerf, one of the humans who can legitimately take credit for creating the technology, doesn't like that idea. Did we mention he works at Google?

Before we get too fired up about Cerf's controversial stance on the Internet rights issue, we should give due diligence to go a bit deeper than the few quotes getting passed around the blogosphere. As rebuttals to his argument percolate, it's useful to address Cerf's points, line-by-line. So what we've done is take these quotes out of the context of Cerf's Times op-ed and placed them into the larger debate about what the Internet is and does. From the nut graf -- it's the third one -- to the final sentence, Cerf takes a pretty philosophical approach, and it's easy to get riled up if you take him literally rather than seriously. Because we like getting riled up, let's do both.

"Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself." This is the real kernel of the nut graf we just mentioned. Cerf makes an interesting analogy in which he sort of equates Internet access in the 21st-century to owning a horse in the olden days:

For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

Well if you want to get philosophical about it, we have to look at how Cerf defines a human right. For this we'll turn to the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." (There are 30 total articles, but we'll try to focus on this one.) It's tough to compare the Internet and horses for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes, it's simply underselling the extent to which the invention of the Internet flipped a switch and created an entire new way of doing things. By now it's a cliché to call the connecting of those two nodes in 1969 a Gutenberg moment, but it's still true. Going back to the UN's definition of a human right, it's pretty difficult to imagine the right to liberty in the 21st-century without the right to freedom of speech. The Internet is a pretty awesome enabler of freedom of speech, sure, but it's also becoming the speech itself. See also: Marshall McLuhan.

"Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important." Cerf rewords his first point in addressing how Internet is more of a civil right than a human right -- we could get real deep in the philosophical muck trying to distinguish the difference between these two things but we'll leave that to the academics -- but he still pushes back against the idea that the Internet is a "right" at all. It's a tool, he says, and he's right. Cerf is getting closer to the debate currently being waged in the United States over Internet censorship, especially in the context of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The Internet is a bit like the telephone:

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a "right" to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of "universal service" -- the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.

Again, while we could sit in a wood-panelled room and argue about this for eons as the eggheads have, one blogger makes a simple point that makes perfect sense. "Downplaying the importance and amazing abilities of the internet to improve the human condition is dangerous," says JD Rucker at TECHi in response to Cerf's column. It's dangerous in the same way that giving the government the ability to censor certain sites that break copyright laws opens up the possibility of broader censorship.

"The responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights." This is so close to feeling like a breath of fresh air. And then Cerf ruins it:

It is engineers -- and our professional associations and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers -- that create and maintain these new capabilities. As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology and its use in society, we must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.

As Internet freedom advocates like Jonathan Zittrain and Lawrence Lessig have been arguing for years, there's a dangerous disconnect between the people who've built and maintain the Internet and the power brokers who stand to dictate how we use it. As we've learned in Congress's confusing debate about how the Internet works -- Spoiler: Most members of Congress do not understand how the Internet works -- and the gnarly backlash that debate's caused. What's happened now is that the disconnect between technologists and politics is at a tipping point. Heck, ask political influencers like Malcolm Gladwell if he thinks the latest version of the Internet, the social web, is a human right, and we're sure his answer would be contentious. As Lessig argued before the Italian Parliament in 2010, we ought to stop thinking about how the Internet is a way to promote freedom and start thinking about how the Internet is freedom itself:

Clarification: An earlier version of this post stated that Cerf "used to work at Google." In fact, he still holds the title "vice president and chief Internet evangelist."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.