Error Not Found: Internet Access as a Human Right

Illustration by Anne Zhang

During a global pandemic with no end in sight, our screens became the avenue for which we conduct our daily lives. Nowadays, we go to school, go to work, find information, and communicate all through the internet. According to Statista, around 4.57 billion people were active internet users as of July 2020, encompassing 59 percent of the global population. However, not everyone has access to the Internet due to financial status, geographical location, and government policies. As the world continues to experience globalization, the use of the Internet has increasingly become a necessity to participate in a modern society. According to the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation, the Internet promotes the protection and realization of rights such as:

the freedom of thought and expression,

the freedom to peaceably assembly and association,

the right to education,

the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits,

the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary, or artistic production of which he is the author,

the right to development, etc.

To answer the question of whether Internet access is a human right or not, we must consider what a right is. In an op-ed article for the New York Times, Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet along with Robert Kahn, argues that the Internet is a tool and enabler of human rights rather than a right itself where it is “a valuable means to an end, not as an end in itself.” To him, human rights include critical freedoms which are not bound to any technology at any time. A right must be something that humans need to lead healthy, meaningful lives which is not bound by any particular technology. Although there is an argument that countries, particularly in the United States, should work towards “universal service” in the same way telephone and electricity services are available even in the most remote parts of the country. However, Cerf argues that the outcomes we want to achieve when talking about human rights on the internet are the rights mentioned above rather than the right to the technology itself. Rather, Cerf concludes that engineers have the tremendous obligation to empower users, to ensure the safety of users online, and to promote civil and human rights because of their role as the architects of the internet who design, develop, and implement network and communication systems that affect access to those human rights.

On the other hand, Scott Edwards , a senior advisor for Amnesty International and professor at George Washington University, counters this point by stating that the increasing need for internet access by impoverished and marginalized people as it relates to all the human rights above, all things we have the right to enjoy, means that the Internet is inseparable from the rights themselves. Furthermore, while the Internet in isolation may not be a human right, it has become inseparable from human rights when it is used to deny and restrict those human rights.

One of the significant ways that Internet access is denied and restricted is through Internet censorship. Internet censorship refers to multiple tools and strategies that prevent information from reaching users which can range from your parental tools in your electronic devices at home to authoritarian attempts to restrict information. For brevity’s sake, this article will focus on Internet censorship at various national levels  with the worst violations that are on the rise. The Internet’s power is taking away the government’s control of information where any individuals can publish anything, which allows citizens to bypass the government’s official information sources. Therefore, it threatens governing regimes which have led to many censorings or cuttings of Internet service in times of unrest.

Justification for internet shutdowns. Source: UNESCO through Wikimedia Commons

One form of censorship is internet shutdowns, which is an intentional disruption of the Internet by rendering it inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, to exert control over information. In addition, by restricting the flow of information, governments are able to hide proof of other human rights violations. The global #KeepItOn coalition documented more than 196 internet shutdowns around the world in 2018. The governments use justifications such as combating “fake news,” hate speech, and related violence, securing public safety and national security, etc. for ordering shutdowns, but that these rarely reflect what is the true motivation. This method to restrict the flow of information was first used in 2011 during the Arab Spring, particularly Egypt, while the Egyptians were protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The government ordered telecommunications companies to shut down access to the internet, voice calls, and SMS while forcing them to send pro-government propaganda for five days. This has set a precedent for the growing trend of the normalized use of internet shutdowns in authoritarian regimes. Now, Egypt is back to where it started protesting a different dictator on Tahrir Square.

Communications Shutdown Timeline in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Source: Ramy Raoof through Wikimedia Commons.

Another form of Internet censorship is filtering which is the technical approaches to control access to information on the Internet: IP blocking, DNS tampering, and URL blocking using a proxy. They are used to block access to specific Webpages, domains, or IP addresses. These methods are most frequently used where direct jurisdiction or control over websites are beyond the reach of authorities.

China’s Great Firewall and VPNs an illustration by Anne Zhang.

A familiar example of this method is China’s Great Firewall which is a joint effort between government monitors and the technology and telecommunications companies compelled to enforce the state’s rules. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology controls and licenses internet service providers which means that all  content in and out of China can be monitored and manipulated by the Chinese authorities through URL filtering (which bans sites like Facebook, words like “Tiananmen”, etc.), DNS tampering (computers contact the DNS server to access websites and request for the IP address but the firewall ruins the DNS response), self-censorship of companies, manual enforcement by millions of civil workers, and blocking VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) by cutting the connection of VPN-looking traffic.

Ironically, in 2016, Fang BinXing, the creator of the Chinese Firewall, was blocked by his own creation during a talk at the Harbin Institute of Technology while he was trying to access a South Korean site. In the end, he also had to resort to the use of a VPN to access the content. In 2017, around 31% of Chinese users utilized a VPN. In 2014, there were reports of a massive internet outage in China that affected 500 million users. According to the Chinese internet watchdog group Greatfire.org, Chinese censorship may be to blame where Chinese censors accidentally directed vast amounts of Chinese internet traffic to banned sites which lead to a crash.

In the case of Fang BinXing, he is an example of an engineer who has aided the Chinese government to make this censorship apparatus possible and has chosen to withdraw himself from the obligation to empower users, to ensure the safety of users online, and to promote civil and human rights that Cerf. It is laughable that he was blocked by his own creation. Yet, he is privileged to  have the skills and resources to circumnavigate these censorings that many marginalized people in China cannot. With that creation, its infrastructure like Chinese Telecom Backbone has stopped users from accessing its services and applications with 100 services both inside and outside of China affected. Economically, although Beijing presents itself as encouraging the growth entrepreneurs’ creativity, backs state-funded venture capital firms, or lauds openness at global conferences, this is merely a facade to the deprivation of the flow of information which suffocates the innovation needed for a modern economy. In addition, the lack of freedom to access information has caused a brain drain in which China’s top researchers are leaving China to work in the West. Indeed, we are all affected by the effects of Chinese censorship due to their response to early reports of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 31 December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang told fellow medical professionals about the new virus in a chat group. He was later accused of “rumor-mongering,” but he succumbed to the virus and died on 7 February 2020. Prior to his death, he released a statement saying, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

The Digital Divide an illustration by Anne Zhang

Government policies are not the only restrictions on the access of the Internet. In fact, digital inequality is evident between urban areas and rural areas; between socioeconomic groups; between gender; between physical disability. The digital divide is not only determined by access to the Internet, but by access to ICT (Information and Communications Technologies), but it also includes other factors such as the quality of connection and related services. Today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see this manifest through the lack of laptops for school children. Another example is the gap in access to broadband internet between rural and urban areas. As you can see, the digital divide is not a clear single gap between two groups, rather, it occurs within numerous dimensions. The digital divide can occur in forms such as lower-performance computers, the difficulty of obtaining technical assistance, and lower access to subscription-based content.

The differences in internet access have created significant distinctions among societies worldwide. Economically, almost every study, despite the methodology and whether it was cross-country or single country, found a positive economic impact from fixed broadband. In education, access to the internet is linked to academic success and excellent scientific research. We see these distinctions even more clearly when considering the deprivation of fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly by autocratic governments. Looking at this information, we can see how in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives in modern society, access to the internet is necessary. If work becomes online; if education becomes online; if knowledge is online;  if socialization becomes online; if entertainment becomes online; if shopping for goods is online; it is not merely a tool anymore, but it has become a necessity. If our lives are so intertwined with the internet that it is a necessity, we should all seriously consider its relationship with human rights.