Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

Summary: Google VP and Internet evangelist Dr. Vinton Cerf writes in the New York Times that Internet access isn't a right - it's just a tool towards enabling free speech.

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TOPICS: Google
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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.

Topic: Google

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  • On ramp

    There needs to be a concerted effort to make closing the digital divide a high-priority.
    Everyone should have an on-ramp to the Internet.

    Drive Safely.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • RE: On ramp

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate +1
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Rabid Howler Monkey : Nope - really it is -10, because it totally overlooks who does the infrastructure work.
        Willnott
      • No one owes no one else an internet access

        Those who want it should simply pay for it themselves.
        LBiege
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @LBiege & Willnott: By the extension of your logic, you can't even require anybody to make such a small effort as to call 911 when somebody is dying, "because who are you to tell them what to do? The could spend that time on doing work they get paid for".
        Natanael_L
    • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate

      I have to admit on this issue I'm torn. I see both sides with both closing the digital divide - which is a worthy and admirable goal - and with the idea that internet access in and of itself is not one of those inalienable human rights such as free speech and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I also do not see where the two viewpoints are entirely incompatible.

      One step local governments have made is making internet access available in libraries provided one has a library card. The computers and internet access are paid for via taxpayer monies which I have no issue with at all. This is something I'd like to see kept on a local or state level at the highest - NO federal government involvement at all.
      athynz
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Pete "athynz" Athens : HEY! Wait a minute - you are distorting the original Bill of Rights, which does NOT include "freedom of speech"; only life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are there.
        Willnott
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Willnott - Couldn't reply to you. I beleive that you have the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights confused. The Declaration calls out life, liberty and the pursuit fo Happiness. The Bill of Rights is the enumeration fot he first 10 amendments of the Constitution which does include freedom of speech.
        whitetigersx
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Willnott: What's liberty worth without the right to say what's on your heart?
        Natanael_L
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Willnott: What's liberty worth without the right to say what's on your heart?
        Natanael_L
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Willnott: What's liberty worth without the right to say what's on your heart?
        Natanael_L
    • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate : Nope - far from it, there are specific infrastructure issues as soon as one strays even a bit from urban locations. The comment in the article of " and the United States already provides for ???universal service??? for things like telephones, electricity, and by extension, the Internet." also totally misses the infrastructure point. Anyone who has tried to exist "in the woods" knows well that "the government" does NOT intervene when the local utilities quote extreme costs for the privilege of connecting to their services.

      Frankly it seems there are way too many urbanites with heads in sand!!!
      Willnott
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Willnott: I can agree that the government can't be required to set up infrastructure wherever people chooses to live, but at least wireless technologies should be considered. While you're not going to get LTE with decent speeds in the wood, acceptable phone coverage could be achieved even in all of Russia. Note that I'm assuming a low load and a mesh style base station network (few buried cables).
        Natanael_L
    • I would guess electricity would be a human right also....

      how else could you use the internet?????


      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate
      sparkle farkle
  • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

    I agree with cerf... It's like having a car.... It's not your right to have a car, but rather a privilege. With it, you need to be responsible in using it. May not be my best example, but I think it fits.
    zaghy2zy
    • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

      @zaghy2zy

      Wrong. It is a right to be able to own a car if you wish to and drive said car because it is necessary to hold a job in the real world.

      As it was a right to own a horse back in the 1800's if you wished to and no one could stop you from owning that.
      Lerianis10
      • But...

        @Lerianis10 ...as you said the "right" was that "no one could stop you." Unfortunately the people who are calling Internet access a "right" are taking things a huge step further and saying that it is the government's responsibility to provide it to you.

        As Ben Franklin said:
        "The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself."
        http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/benjaminfr141100.html#ixzz1iylM9I2U
        cornpie
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Lerianis10

        Then where are the government supported cars that I can drive? There are buses and trains that can be used to get from home to work, many with government subsidy. Owning the car is not a right, the right is being able to have the privilege of owning a car. And you must be responsible if you own one. Same is true for Internet access.
        silent E
      • RE: Internet access isn't a human right, says Google VP

        @Lerianis10 There's no such right to own a car. Look it up. Besides driving a car and owning one are two different things.

        Rights in general are things that the government is not allowed to take away from you as opposed to things that the government must guarantee that you have. So even if we were to amend the constitution to say "???congress may make no law blocking a person's access to the internet" it wouldn't be the same as the government promising to provide all citizens with internet access.
        Bill Snebold
      • You are wrong.....

        @Lerianis10

        It IS NOT a right to own a car....as stated above, it is a privilege. Disobey the laws of the road, and that privilege is removed. Whether you purchase a car of not, is a choice.
        linux for me