Internet Access: A Human Right?

On May 16th, 2011,

In a report issued by Special Repporteur Frank La Rue, the UN declared that Internet access is a Human Right. The Special Repporteur specified that there are two aspects of this right: 1) the right to access content, restricted only by Human Rights laws and 2) the availability of physical and technical commodities needed to obtain Internet access in the first place.

This report came on the heels of Internet blackouts in Syria and Egypt during political unrest, and in response to the three strikes laws for intellectual copyright infringement via illegal file-sharing that France and the UK have adopted. In France, the three strikes anti-piracy law means that people who participate in illegal file sharing will be deprived of Internet access if they continue their conduct after receiving two warnings to stop.

La Rue emphasized that governments do not have the right to disconnect citizens from the Internet, even in times of political turmoil. Furthermore, the report specifically addresses the three strikes legislation: “In particular, the Special Rapporteur urges States to repeal or amend existing intellectual copyright laws which permit users to be disconnected from Internet access, and to refrain from adopting such laws.” He also notes that cutting off Internet access to copyright infringers is “disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

According to La Rue, and many of those who support his statements, Internet must be a human right because the right to access the infinite amount of information and idea exchange available on the Internet is inextricably tied with freedom of speech and freedom of opinion and expression. The report states: “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.”

La Rue acknowledges that due to economic and technological barriers in certain countries, global Internet access cannot happen overnight. However, there are other obstacles to the realization of Internet access as a human right, the most glaring of which is that this report is essentially a set of recommendations that will need to be negotiated and reengineered before it even comes close to being something that is effective or legally enforceable – and that can be a long, long process.

Written by Sarah Lippman