Saturday, July 14, 2012

Can there be new human rights?






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?

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2 comments:

  1. You might argue that a human right to the internet is an outgrowth of a right to free speech. Similar to how freedom of the press couldn't exist before the printing press did. So it isn't really a new human right, it's a new aspect of an old human right, that is based on our nature and the human condition.

    (I tried to post using the facebook thing, but I don't think it worked. Sorry if this double or triple posted)

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  2. My impression is that a primitive human judgment is about fairness. As you point out,
    "Rights are necessities for the world we live in now, not the world that we lived in at
    one time."

    Consider two individuals in a city who are searching for a job, one using the internet, one denied internet use for whatever reason. The two individuals are in all capabilities
    identical. No one would consider this 'equal opportunity' for getting a job promptly or being able to respond to the best fit job. Along with being unfair, it would be unjust, and hence why not make it a crime? More to the point, why not make it an idealized right, as is equal opportunity. Of course it is only idealized in both cases.

    Elizabeth's excellent point about free speech perhaps implying the right to be heard and that now means the internet, is an independent argument that internet capabilities ought to be a right. The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." When so much of communications currently requires the internet, how could the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression hold otherwise?

    I mention 'idealized' as these proclamations are nothing but will-o'-the-wisps with no substantive meaning. The page where I got the title of the commission also has on it, news of the same day, @ http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/06/internet-a-human-right/

    - Egypt’s Last-Standing ISP Goes Dark
    - U.S. Courts Split on Internet Bans
    - FBI Knocks Down 40 Doors in Probe of Pro-WikiLeaks Attackers
    - two thirds of Syria’s internet access has abruptly gone dark

    I'm glad that Hobbes was mentioned. These pronouncements mean nothing as the statements from the UN are those of a Lilliputian, not a Leviathan, and will remain so until its House of Lords is disbanded and it gets funded enforcement capabilities. There is not enough propaganda nor are there enough drugs to make me think that will happen soon.

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