Internet Access Must Be a Human Right

Access to the internet must be a basic human right, across the globe, for a number of reasons. First of all, legitimate, transparent democratic processes of government require in today’s world that information flow freely and that citizens be empowered to share information and to find information, according to their choices and their needs.

Socio-economic barriers to such free flow of information are just another kind of information control that establishes dangerous demographic stratification into privileged and marginalized groups. Governments across the world are using web filtering technologies to censor the information available to their citizens and crack down on dissent.

In China, in Iran, in Cuba, aggressive web filtering measures and electronic spying technology have been used to prevent the spread of information unfavorable to the government leadership, to obscure corruption, and to hunt and persecute members of a would-be democratic opposition. In China, web filtering censorship has perhaps reached its zenith, with major multinationals collaborating in the “Great Firewall of China”.

Web searches routinely rule out links that contain information banned by the government, and the government has explored barring any website not entirely in Mandarin from being viewed inside China. Talk of the parallel Chinese internet has given way to concerns the government has opted for a technologically more realistic total filtering program. “Cyber dissidents” are now an entirely new area of press targeted by government censors and security forces.

In China and Iran, cyber dissidents are jailed simply for linking to materials that the government has sought to keep away from the public eye. Iran’s government has repeatedly shut down opposition websites in order to prevent democratic assembly, to cover up violence against civilians or to obscure challenges to official diktat.

China recently delayed plans to implement a draconian filtering system based on a new “green dam” software platform. The government is believed to have been taken aback by the broad-based and persistent expressions of anger over the plans, as the nation’s population continues to move into contact with the online medium and is demanding more transparency. But Pres. Hu Jintao came to office promising a “smokeless war” against the press and cyber dissidents, and China has been criticized across the world for efforts to manipulate the information made available to its citizens, including distortions of the unrest a year ago in Tibet and Sichuan and now in Xinjiang, which many say could foment violence against people of Tibetan or Uighur ethnicity, depending on the case.

Efforts to use internet filtering to cover up the massacre of unarmed civilians at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 are part of that ongoing war against the free press. The Beijing government fears acknowledging what took place there could delegitimize the current regime and sow political unrest.

Pro-democracy advocates say that like any government in a free democracy, China’s government could acknowledge its mistakes, promote electoral reform, and liberalize its political process, without destabilizing the country. In remote regions like Darfur in western Sudan or North Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, conditions of extreme danger for aid workers and violence against journalists means information filters very slowly through the population, worsening already catastrophic situations of persistent conflict and human suffering.

Violence against women in Darfur is persistent in part owing to the fact that Darfuri women have virtually no access to information distribution systems. They are almost never able to report crimes against them to any public authority or international group. And medical service workers are often unable to locate people in need of help, as the remote region is plagued by lack of communicative media. There is also concern about the effects of internet usage on the development of human cognitive abilities.

Social cognitive structures are thought to be directly affected by use of communicative media, and the internet as achieved fundamental alterations in the communicative structure of society; facing that reality, it must be a universal right of all people to participate in the direction and development of that medium in reference to their own daily lives.

In May 2009, I reported on this for The Hot Spring Network:

“Cognitive science has revealed a human brain notable for its plasticity. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the Internet not only shapes itself to the mind but shapes the mind to itself”, writes Ana Menéndez in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine. What can we do to impede the erosion of some of our most prized social-intellectual habits of mind, rooted in organic brain structure and in social networking (from campfire to empire, parliament to newsprint, to Twitter and The Hot Spring Network), while taking advantage of the power of the web?

The internet and attendant communications technologies have a visible decentralizing effect that enhances the democratic influence average people can exert in the public sphere. In the US election of 2008, that was evident in online information sharing and organizing. In the Spanish election of 2004, it was evident in the popular outcry that was so ably communicated by sms, that helped uncover a government disinformation campaign.

Clay Sharky, of the TED initiative, explains in a video address how social networking services and a new generation of web applications and smart phones, are coming together to empower individuals across the world and bring about the end of “top-down” controls in the political sphere. This effect is operating even in authoritarian societies, where in some cases the best information available comes from individuals posting anecdotal reports online.

Perhaps the world’s most developed and advanced campaign for net neutrality, or legal constraints on internet service providers’ (ISP) ability to plan or carry out systematic filtering of content, has taken root in the US. Motivated by a fierce defense of First Amendment rights and an understanding of the democratizing effects of open flows of information, the net neutrality movement has won important victories both in Congress andamong federal regulators.

In March 2008, I reported for Cafe Sentido that “We are on the verge of a major communications and global economic revolution, in which major media, technological advances, cloud computing and dispersed optimization, adapt to and take over new models for living and producing in human society.” But that moment is being met with stepped up efforts by governments and businesses to control the freedom of ordinary people to access and control information.

Such efforts are a direct assault on democratic freedoms, and measurably impede the ability of people to gather information related to risks to their health or safety or to orchestrate the dissemination of information that may favor their social, economic or ideological interests. As the US Bill of Rights‘ commitment to a first-order freedom of the press shows, all other democratic rights are built on the foundation of a free and independent media culture. So access to the web must begin to be treated as a basic measure of human rights everywhere.

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Originally published July 23, 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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