Saturday, January 7, 2012

Politics of whether the Internet is a fundamental Human Right or merely a tool to help free expression? Vint Cerf creates a stir in the Internet and Human Rights community!

human rights
Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right stated Vinton G. Cerf in a recent opinion article in the New York Times NYT here that attempts to build and clarify a single sided relation between the Internet, Human Rights and Civil Liberties. His article created a stir globally for people that believe in the fundamental human right to communicate and express freely while access to the Internet itself being a fundamental human right.

Vint's attempt to differentiate between the right to access, using a tool, freedom of expression and Human Rights in general with regards to the Internet is interesting but it also provokes the question that whether  paper a human right or is a pencil a human right or is access to both a paper or pencil a human right?

In my humble opinion, this article attempts to recognize the layer of abstractness between Technology as only a tool of the current age and Human Rights and Civil Liberties as universal in order to understand
both the technical and civil roles.

Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself?
The larger point that Vint mentions that "technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself" says that there is something of more humane nature and need than just the technology in between. It just outlines in the following order:
  • Human Beings as Citizens,
  • Recognition of Human Rights (the right to freely communicate, share and express),
  • Technology (the tools),
  • Access (being able to access that tool),
  • Policy (government plans, regulations and action to achieve connectivity to the tool for its citizens),
  • Cost Control and Management (the dynamics of economy, demand and supply, market production and distribution),
  • Technology Evolves (update and upgrade both knowledge and infrastructure),
  • Waste (dumping old technology?)
  • Changing Needs (as human society progresses with technology)
  • Human Rights & Civil Liberty Violations, did the Internet violate those or did governments and corporations violate those?
Who will take the responsibility for providing access to the Internet and Web?
At the fundamental level, it is the duty or obligation of every government to create an enabling environment where its citizens can live and practice their fundamental human rights, can freely connect with each other, can freely share and interchange information with each other with the fear of violation of their fundamental rights (again greatly regulated under national constitutions). The tools then evolve and are used as Human Civilization embraces more and more scientific developments of its various needs.

Self created obstacles to the Internet?
For example, despite the tall claims of my country's telecom regulatory bodies that Mobile Penetration reaches nearly half of the country's population, smart phones are both expensive and a luxury accessible to only a certain affording class while even for them Internet access is a luxury. The governance of the telecom actually delays and prevents society to shift to 3G or 4G access which again increases the access to luxurious 3G and 4G compliant technology. There really is no line that can be drawn here.

The true cost of Internet Connectivity for the developing?
In my recent visit to Kabul, 1MB of Internet connectivity stood at US$200 to US$300. In Pakistan, that is at only US$12. For Afghanistan to achieve that price and make it accessible for its citizens will remain a dream for many years to come. Why, Pakistan is population wise the 6th most populated country in the world and thus the 6th largest market for Internet and Telecom Services. The market in Pakistan has evolved only after insufficient struggle to provide basic human needs and infrastructure. In the cities for example, we have had less and less electricity since 2007. In rural regions where over 66% of national population resides, electricity may be available only for 2-4 hours max in a 24hr day.

Is electricity a fundamental Human Right or simply access to it?
For both Pakistan and Afghanistan, electricity is a major issue and would electricity be subject to being an Human Right or a basic need for Humans to progress and participate in today's post-industrialized global economy? Is electricity a tool to run a bunch of other tools that help improve one's life or is it a human right that using it or not using it might end me up in jail because I did not use it to express myself? Electricity is a basic human need in today's world. I can still express with or without it. I can use solar power to charge my phone and send that particular SMS that can go viral. Then access to solar batteries would indeed be a challenge.

Another important discussion here is that if humanity uses electricity to build a technology on which all human ideas, expression and knowledge is stored, how can I access that? Do I have the fundamental right to access that human knowledge? Will I have to use electric powered tools to communicate in order to practice my fundamental human right to communicate? Once I can communicate, how do I use these tools to freely share and raise my concerns or help others so how can I practice my freedom of speech.

That has been the thin red line that prevails within the Human Rights Declaration and Internet Rights per say debate today. Is the tool the fundamental character or the tools to enable the right to access knowledge, the right to communicate, the right to freedom of speech? As Vint Cerf says, as these rights are universal to humanity, they are not bound to any particular technology at any particular time that also links Internet is valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

What are the Ethical Responsibilities of the Technical Community?
I taught thousands of Pakistani Web Masters and Internet Engineers from the very beginning of Internet and World Wide Web WWW penetration here since 1995 and have managed the country's critical Internet infrastructure in a government body in the past and continue to train governments and organizations on the use of Free & Open Source Software FOSS and Open Standards (Open ICT Ecosystems). It was both my professional and personal obligation to empower my fellow citizens with the knowledge and ethics of data, information and knowledge creation while maintaining safety and showing others how to use information while keeping safe while the Internet and WWW continued to spread.

To that end, I believe Vint Cerf simply says, protect existing civil and human rights without calling access to the tool a human right. Accessing that tool and expressing on it might get me jailed or killed, in our part of the world, it does. We may have to first "help" our governments first appreciate our fundamental Human Rights and Civil Liberties is what it directs at......but it does miss the point!

Is Vint Cerf using an Internet Infrastructure Protection Shield to protect Unilateralism?
Vint Cerf and his followers may be attempting to usher the global Internet community away from the notion that access to critical Internet infrastructure resources may be treated as fundamental Human Rights and an important component of today's understanding of Civil Liberties in a highly connected and networked world.

An example to this end may be various countries across the globe regarding broadband as a right for every citizen in their countries. Vint's notion may move on to actually defy that basic necessities of life are not rights at all? The philosophy being propagated here may just be an attempt to continue defense of the the unilateral control on the Internet as if someone rightly says that "thou shalt not touch what is not broken"!

Vint's article may vaguely be an attempt to keep away the focus of Human Rights and Civil Liberty activists and advocates from making the Internet and its critical infrastructure a globally shared responsibility.

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