The Internet as a fundamental human right?

Many around the world believe that the Internet access should be a fundamental right, as brought out by a recent BBC global survey. The case was earlier made for mobile phones as a basic human right, which I found rather unconvincing. On the other hand, I see the Internet and web, and the access to both from PCs and mobiles, as key platforms supporting and giving life to Article 19 of the UDHR,

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.

This basic freedom is also recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), in other UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 13), and in all three main regional human rights instruments (Africa, the Americas and Europe).

During the war, the Sri Lankan government (or more accurately, the diktat of the Ministry of Defence) repeatedly cut off communications to the North and East of the country in particular. SMS services were arbitrarily shut down on Independence Day in 2008. Even post war and in 2010 alone, access to information on the web has been curtailed.

And yet it is correct to argue that access to the Internet is one thing, regulation of the Internet another. The former does not guarantee the progressive nature of the latter. It is entirely possible to guarantee access, and yet have a censorious Internet and web filter. It is this right to communicate, anchored to Article 19 of the UDHR, that remains at risk in Sri Lanka even after the end of war.

Some key points from the BBC report:

  • Despite this enthusiasm there is also concern, with many web users cautious about speaking their minds online. The poll found that they were evenly split between those who felt that “the internet is a safe place to express my opinions” (48%) and those who did not feel this (49%).
  • Japan was among the countries where most web users did not feel they could express their opinions safely online (65%), alongside South Korea (70%), France (69%), Germany (72%), and China (55%). In contrast, most Indians (70%), Ghanaians (74%), and Kenyans (73%) felt they could express their opinions safely.
  • The poll also showed that most internet users feel that the internet should not be regulated by governments. More than half (53%) of internet users agreed that “the internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere”—including large majorities in South Korea (83%), Nigeria (77%), and Mexico (72%).
  • The poll also reveals that around one in three internet users across the countries polled regard the web as a good place to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

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