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Should Access to the Internet be a Human Right?
As a parliamentary report calls for better web access in rural areas, one MP said everyone has the right to access broadband
For decades in the UK, access to things like electricity, gas and running water have been considered a basic right. Many leading figures are now asking if access to broadband should also be considered as important as a utility.
Conservative MP Neil Parish raised the issue by saying “access to broadband should be considered a fundamental right”.
Parish is also a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee. In early February it published a report on rural broadband, which highlighted just how poor Internet access is in remote areas.
The committee is also worried that broadband coverage is also substandard in rural areas and the UK could run the risk of becoming a “two-tier society”. They are especially concerned about the plight of five per cent of households (around 850,000 people), who are still getting below 2Mbps broadband.
The report suggests the Government should offer vouchers to these households that are unable to get faster speeds to help they pay for satellite broadband, which is capable of providing access in areas that are beyond the reach of cable broadband.
MP Anne McIntosh, the chairman of the committee does not endorse Mr. Parish’s claims that broadband is a “right”, but she did say it is “an essential everyday public utility”.
She went on to say without broadband “schoolchildren can’t do their homework, people can’t pay bills, or even watch a film. It is a case of the haves and have-nots”.
Many in the United Nations share Mr. parish’s view. In 2011, a report from the Human Right Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared web access is to be a basic human right as it enables people to “exercise there right to freedom of opinion and expression”.
Several countries have already taken measures to make sure this right is law. In 2009, France’s highest court, the constitutional Council, declared Internet access to be a basic human right. Finland followed suit a year later and vowed to provide 100Mbps broadband to all its citizens by 2015.
There’s support for the idea across the world. In 2010 the BBC World Service polled 28,000 adults form 26 countries and found that almost 80 per cent of people felt Internet access was a fundamental right.
But the principle has some high-profile critics, the most notably one being a vice president at Google Vint Cerf. He has said that technology “is an enabler of right, not a right itself”. Access to the web should be a ‘civil right’, he argues, not a human right.
Other Internet experts also agree with Cerf, citing the dangers of ‘human-rights inflation’. They go on to warn that labeling internet access as a human right will devalue other rights that are more important, like freedom of speech or the freedom from torture.
Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International and other campaign groups are saying that it’s wrong to equate Internet access with fundamental freedoms. It should be regarded as a part of the right to expect a reasonable standard of living, along with things like food, clothing, housing and medical care.
This argument matters because the government will feel more pressure to deliver faster broadband to everyone if it becomes accepted as a human right. That’s why MP’s who represent predominantly rural constituencies, like Mr. Parish, will continue to make the argument that web access is not just an essential service, but it’s a fundamental right.
• Five per cent of the UK are unable to get broadband speeds above 2Mbps
• MPs have called for a voucher scheme to cut the cost rural households will have to pay to get faster speeds.
• In 2009 Frances Highest court said that access to the internet is a basic human right