United Nations report says Internet access is a human right

A United Nations report released on Friday says that Internet access is a human right.

“Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,” said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, who wrote the document “on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

La Rue added that access to the Internet is particularly important during times of political unrest, as demonstrated by the recent “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, among other countries. In the Philippines, the internet has started to make citizens use it as a platform to advocate social change especially in Facebook and Twitter.

From the report:

The Special Rapporteur believes that the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.

Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights.

The report notes that while the Internet has been in existence since the 1960s, it is the way people now use the Internet, across the world and across age groups, with “incorporation into virtually every aspect of modern human life,” that makes the Internet an unprecedented force.

On the Promotion and Protection of the Right of Freedom of Opinion & Expression

“According to the International Telecommunication Union, the total number of Internet users worldwide is now over 2 billion,” the report said, also pointing out the huge growth in the number of active users on Facebook, which has surged from 150 million in 2009 to 600 million this year.

La Rue also urges governments to eschew laws that allow for people’s access to the Internet to be blocked.

From the report:

The Special Rapporteur remains concerned that legitimate online expression is being criminalized in contravention of States’ international human rights obligations, whether it is through the application of existing criminal laws to online expression, or through the creation of new laws specifically designed to criminalize expression on the Internet.

Such laws are often justified as being necessary to protect individuals’ reputation, national security or to counter terrorism. However, in practice, they are frequently used to censor content that the Government and other powerful entities do not like or agree with.

La Rue describes the Internet as “revolutionary” and unlike any other communication medium such as radio, television or printed publications, which are “based on one-way transmission of information.”

The Internet, on the other hand, is an “interactive medium” that allows not only for the sharing of information, but also “collaboration in the creation of content,” which makes people “no longer passive recipients, but also active publishers of information.”

As such, the Internet can be a tool of empowerment and aid in the protection of and access to other human rights — as well as contributing to growth economically, socially and politically — benefiting mankind as a whole.

From the report:

Such platforms are particularly valuable in countries where there is no independent media, as they enable individuals to share critical views and to find objective information.

Furthermore, producers of traditional media can also use the Internet to greatly expand their audiences at nominal cost. More generally, by enabling individuals to exchange information and ideas instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders, the Internet allows access to information and knowledge that was previously unattainable.

This, in turn, contributes to the discovery of the truth and progress of society as a whole.

But while La Rue argues that Internet access is a basic human right, he also notes that giving people that right isn’t yet always feasible in every nation. But that shouldn’t stop governments from trying to give their people affordable access to the Web.

From the report:

Given that access to basic commodities such as electricity remains difficult in many developing States, the Special Rapporteur is acutely aware that universal access to the Internet for all individuals worldwide cannot be achieved instantly.

However, the Special Rapporteur reminds all States of their positive obligation to promote or to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise this right, including the Internet.

Hence, States should adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies –- developed in consultation with individuals from all segments of society, including the private sector as well as relevant Government ministries -– to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all.