Dr. Vinton Cerf, a Google VP and its chief Internet evangelist, took to the pages of the New York Times late last week with a opinion piece provocatively titled "Internet Access Is Not a Human Right." But if the title doesn't immediately make you close the browser tab, Cerf provides a philosophical look at the case against the concept.
In the wake of the so-called "Arab Spring," the role social media played in enabling protesters to gather and exercise their human right of free speech sparked a lot of discussion on the necessity of Internet access. In fact, France and Estonia have already officially recognized Internet access as an essential human right.
But, as Cerf writes:
"[That] argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things."
To use Cerf's own example, it used to be that you needed a horse to make a living. But the related human right was the right to earn a living, not to own a horse. And it's the same for the Internet: technology enables and enhances the right to free speech, but it's just a tool towards that end.
The argument for Internet access as a civil right is stronger, Cerf writes, but runs into the same problems. Civil rights are "conferred upon us by law," as Cerf puts it, and the United States already provides for "universal service" for things like telephones, electricity, and by extension, the Internet.
But all of that misses the point, he writes:
"Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights. The Internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights."
Rather than letting law or judicial bodies set the pace, Cerf says that engineers and technologists have an obligation to both empower their users and to protect them from harm from viruses and the like. In other words, there's a civic responsibility that goes alongside technological innovation.
In conclusion, Cerf writes:
"Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right."
Heady stuff, to be sure. And given Dr. Cerf's role as evangelist, it's a lot more clear where Google's commitment to transparency and user protection comes from (I'll leave the discussion of how well Google fulfills that commitment up to the comments).
This isn't the first time Cerf has touched on topics of Internet governance and the future of the web, but his New York Times op-ed was his clearest statement of intent yet. It's not nearly as controversial a response as it seems, but I'm wondering what the industry response is going to be, if anything at all.