Last week, the United Nations declared that internet access is a human right. Their language was strong, even calling upon all countries to “ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” This is both new and exciting, but is it defensible?
When we think of human rights we think of self-defense, water, bodily integrity and education…needs that are part of the essential human experience. Hobbes, the philosopher who introduced the modern conception of rights, founded them on human nature and the human condition. As time went on, our notion of rights expanded, adding political (or civil) rights. These include things like the right to free speech, or freedom of religion and assembly. While these are new-ish ideas (only a few hundred years old) they are based on what we need to thrive in a democracy. Does it make sense to add the internet to this list and if so why?
The argument for new rights is simple: the human experience changes, as does human knowledge. Rights are necessities for the world we live in now, not the world that we lived in at one time. On the flip side, if Hobbes is correct that rights are an outgrowth of human nature, we, the human beings, haven’t really changed since the 17th and 18th centuries. Why should our conception of rights change?
One final question: if the UN is correct and internet access is indeed a right, is it a right in and of itself, or is it only one because it is a means towards others — because it helps provide free speech, assembly, and education (for example)? Is the internet so special that it would be a crime to take it away and if so, what are the consequences of declaring that everyone should have it? What do we do next?