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What Does the Campaign to Make Internet Access a Human Right Say about Who We Are?
Steve Fuller   Jul 12, 2017   Ethical Technology  

What follows is not an argument for rejecting internet access as a human right. I have no problem with internet access being made available to all humans. But I believe that the enthusiasm attached to this campaign speaks to the Realpolitik that often lay behind ‘human rights’ campaigns. After all, in terms of Abraham Maslow’s famed ‘hierarchy of needs’, which defines the stages of human self-actualisation, internet access would be located near the very top – certainly on top of meeting the basic material conditions of life, which remain a challenge to a third to a half of the world’s population. So one might think that our efforts would be better spent on securing the bottom end of the human rights spectrum before racing to the top.

Nevertheless, for the most part, talk of ‘human rights’ is not really about trying to enable all humans to do what only some humans currently do. Rather, such talk is basically a strategy to redress what sociologists call the ‘relative deprivation’ that exists in a typically aspirational segment of the human population. These people already have the capacities needed to exercise the right in question, which leads them to think that they are entitled to the right. However, for whatever reasons, they are prevented from exercising the right. This then becomes a source of frustration, which can turn into violence.

There is no doubt that the drive to make free internet access a human right has moved with remarkable speed. In 2003, less than a decade after the construction of the World Wide Web, a United Nations summit conference formally proposed the right. Moreover, global surveys regularly show support for the right at 80 percent levels. It is generally presumed that the failure of nations to provide free internet access is a sign of political repression and/or economic underdevelopment.

So what is wrong with making free internet access a human right?

A symptom of the problem is what ‘free internet access’ means in practice. It is much more about freedom from censorship than freedom from payment. This is exactly what one would expect from the history of ‘rights-talk’ prior to the formal recognition of ‘human rights’ by the UN in 1948. The people who claim a particular right typically already possess the capacities needed to make the most of what the right would allow them.

Literate people clamour for a right to free expression and property owners call for a right to bear arms. If you’re neither literate nor propertied, these rights do little for you. Similarly, the people who claim free internet access are usually quite willing and able to pay for it, but they object to the government stopping them from acquiring access or, in the case of censorship, not getting full value for money. However, if your life doesn’t depend on internet access or you’re not especially adept in all its facilities, you do not necessarily have as much to gain by being given this right.

This point generally goes unnoticed because in the past whenever a right has been introduced, the state or some other agency has invested in capacity-building to ensure that the whole population can reap the right’s full benefits. This is a sympathetic way of reading the history of socialism. However, in our supposedly ‘post-socialist’ world, it is not clear that the institutional mechanisms are in place for this to happen with regard to the right to free internet access. In that case, the likely result is to empower those already on the verge of being empowered, while providing an additional barrier to the disempowered.

Moreover, even though half of the world now has some sort of internet access, the internet’s record on improving the human condition has been chequered. It has certainly increased the capacity for self-expression, as the original UN summit stressed. But the overall results so far have been more disruptive than constructive, notwithstanding the endless promises of new internet-based ‘platforms’ to replace the old institutional arrangements. The historic benchmark was the failure of the social media-driven ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010, which the journalist Evgeny Morozov memorably dubbed a ‘net delusion’.

What is clear about the extension of internet access is its amplification of people’s ability to do what they already have done or would like to do, probably in an unprecedented way. People spend more, complain more – and perhaps even create more. But the track record of internet access to date has yet to justify the sort of species-wide improvement to be deemed a human right. The internet currently is no more than a high-grade facilitator for those already empowered by other rights.

Postscript:  This article summarizes a ‘Mythburn’ talk that I gave at Brain Bar Budapest in June 2017.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.



COMMENTS

The hierarchy of needs doesn’t translate into a hierarchy of human rights—not if we want eventually to win them all.

Human rights depend on each other—if we lose one, that makes it harder to defend the rest.  Now that we use computing for so many important activities, access to an honest and unsurveilled internet, and control of our own computing (free software, see https://gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-even-more-important.html) are necessary for defending other human rights.

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