Broadband Access is a Human Right. Then What?

by Postwoman

Here is a blog post I wrote with Minna Aslama Horowitz of St. John’s University. Cross-posted on: Pardon my Finnish

German historian Gerhard Oestreich (1968) says one could see in every basic right the aims of the political and social ordering. As the global discourse on civil and human rights moves toward a more democratic direction, one can easily trace the evolution in communication rights starting with the emphasis on the freedom of expression in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to the more inclusive forms of communication such as the right to have access to information or the right to communicate. With the normalization of the Internet in daily life, the rights-based approach to ICTs becomes more critical on a global as well as national level. Not only the recent protests in Tahrir or Wall Street that use multiple and advanced tools of technology to challenge the established power, but also growing public interest and concerns about our rights in the so-called cyberspace (privacy, copyright, freedom of expression to name a few) confirm Oestreich’s view about the relationship between rights and the political/social order.

We live in a world filled with abundance of information and messages and not only our rights are more mediated by technology, but also our online experience either complicates existing issues or raise new questions in relation to rights and citizenship. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that there is an ongoing discussion about whether the Internet is a human/civil right or not. According to a BBC Poll in 2010, almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental right. Finland is reportedly the first country in the world to legalize broadband access as a human right in 2009. The government’s decision to guarantee every Finn a 1 Mb connection in July 2010 made news all around the world in online activist circles as well as mainstream media. Since then, the United Nations has joined the bandwagon in November 2011. Although the UK has not legalized the Internet access within a rights-framework yet, it highly advocates universal service principle in its broadband policy initiatives through the Digital Economy Act and projects like the Broadband Delivery UK as well as the eAccessibility.

On the one hand, putting the Internet access within a law/regulation context aims to emphasize the critical needs associated with this technology and puts greater pressure on governments and corporations to build the necessary infrastructure. On the other hand, there are some opposing views, sometimes from the least-expected sources – e.g., by one of the founding fathers of the Internet, Vinton G. Cerf, who argues against the focus on technology, i.e. means, rather than the end itself –civil rights in a democratic society. The essence of his argument not only points out the pitfalls of over-prioritizing technology, but also shows how complicated Internet access policies are. Getting connected to the Internet, or stepping into the cyberspace, neither solves the existing inequality issues in society – in defiance of both Finnish and British broadband policies that describe universal broadband access as a panacea for most economic and social problems- nor comes without its own intricacies.

Take Google’s blog services and Twitter – two online global mega platforms that have decided to engage in country-specific content censorship. As the CEO of Twitter notes — and many concerned media-activists debate — this is a complex issue. On one hand, this smells like restricting the freedom of expression in one of the most filter-less communication platforms there is. On the other hand, the country-by-country policy allows dissident voices to be tweeted beyond the borders of a country, even if their tweet would be censored in that country.

Another example: While writing this blog and simultaneously reading a techie activist list-serve, we encountered a case that could be discussed in connection to the UDHR Article 12(“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…”). A digital journalism student was searching for experts to interview on social network scraping. The topic was inspired by an incident that sounds like an urban legend (which it might be): The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had allegedly denied two young Brits entrance to the country at the LAX airport. The reason: DHS had discovered that these social-media-addicted tourists had tweeted they would “destroy America” (party in America, in the U.K. slang).

Yet, some might argue, was that an act of privacy interference, as Twitter is a public platform? Why should the DHS not engage in monitoring social media? More broadly, as the diplomatic and military leaks by the whistler-blower online collective and site Wikileaks has made us ponder, what is the right balance between national/global security and secrecy? What are our rights as citizens, on one hand, to privacy and, on the other hand, to information?

The last weeks have also witnessed global activism that created unholy alliances of Silicon Valley and grassroots actors. As documented in this blog, the Internet mega stars Google and Wikipedia went on strike, as did individual bloggers. The controversy populated Facebook statuses, YouTube videos, and tweets. People around the globe learned aboutSOPA and PIPA, legislation to counter online piracy and copyright infringements that were to be decided upon in the United Stated House and Senate. Similarly, in January 2012 the international Anti Counterfeit Trade Agreement evoked protests in Europe just as the EU officially joined Australia, Canada, Morocco, and the U.S. (among others) in combat against intellectual property rights violations.

This is surprisingly close to another old idea — the Right to Communicate — that was brought about by the Global South in the 1970s and 80s to counter Western cultural imperialism. The UN Universal Declaration (Article 24) does respond to the right of cultural identities — and in the same article, it addresses intellectual ownership: the right to moral and material protection of scientific and artistic authorship. SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA aim at protection of intellectual property. But the opponents of those regulatory initiatives argue that such laws and agreements hinder the openness, collaborations and innovation in the networked, borderless, global environments.

As those examples demonstrate, broadband and Internet policymaking is quite complicated. Different layers of networks (physical, content, service) are controlled by various stakeholders, there are always contested values at play, and it is a very decentralized system that cannot be solely governed by policies or regulation. It is every stakeholder’s, including users, responsibility to reshape how access is defined, measured, and put into action. Network(s), or networking, is not only a technical term but also a process of collaboration that is much needed to achieve effective Internet access for everyone. However, before embarking on this project, it is highly crucial to make sure we speak the same language of access that corresponds to the same complicated, yet more fruitful, picture for each of us.

Physical infrastructure and high-speed connectivity are a must, however making these two available only will neither provide equal access for everyone, nor deliver the promises envisioned in the policies. If the goal is to empower citizens and communities in society, access should be rethought along the lines of its multidimensionality, which is derived from using networks, knowledge, and modes of communication in various areas of life for different purposes in line with the diversity of needs and uses of various groups and individuals. Ensuring effective Internet access available for everyone is not only a difficult, but also a daunting task. However it is what policies of the 21st century to strive for to handle the complexity of networks and utilize the potential of the Internet.

Burcu Baykurt 
New York University’s Media, Culture and Communication Department. Prior to NYU, she studied Political Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London where she conducted research on broadband policies of Finland and the UK.

Minna Aslama Horowitz 

Assistant Professor at St. John’s University, New York. Affiliated with the McGannon Communication Research Center, Fordham University, New York, and the University of Helsinki, Department of Social Research/Media and Communication Studies.

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