I'd put my horse in the back yard and love him with all my heart.
January 5, 2012 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Vint Cerf, fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, writes in a New York Times Op-Ed today that Internet Access Is Not a Human Right:
...technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The U.N. issued a special report last summer in the wake of the demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa widely interpreted as proclaiming internet access for all as not just a priority for all states essential for promoting human rights, but as a human right itself. Full text hosted at the LA Times.
posted by 2bucksplus (65 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
If Vint Cerf doesn't think we need technology to free us from torture and other abuses, he hasn't been paying attention.

Also, good luck leading a healthy life without technology.
posted by DU at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'll grant that ponies aren't human rights, but pony requests..
posted by jeffburdges at 10:37 AM on January 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Bah. At this time and place in history internet access is necessary to exercise your rights, and as a necessary precursor is a right itself.

The fact that this may change over time is immaterial. Basic human rights are not static.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:38 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think he's disagreeing with the premise, just with the idea of writing laws explicitly labeling technology in and of itself as a human right. Make the freedom to communicate and freedom of speech the rights, not just the access to Twitter or whatever, would be the takeaway point, I think.

Seems a bit hair-split-ish to me, at least in the context of the modern world, but I can't really disagree with him.
posted by Scattercat at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2012 [26 favorites]


I'd say that's a very unfortunate editorial title. The first sentence, "technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself." is much more accurate, though perhaps not as trenchant.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Isn't free association a human right?
posted by banal evil at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


He's absolutely right, and good for him. If you think semantics like this don't matter, note that the entirely metaphorical "War on Terror" has been used by the last two presidents to justify innumerable abuses because we are "at war."

(What country has Congress issued a declaration of war against, George and Barack? Terrorstan? Still waiting for my answer.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yes, it's not a human right, and access to technology should not be a goal in and of itself - especially in places where there are more systemic problems that need to be addressed. But we should continue to denounce those governments who attempt to suppress and manipulate technology in order to maintain their grip on power.
posted by antonymous at 10:44 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]



If Vint Cerf doesn't think we need technology to free us from torture and other abuses, he hasn't been paying attention.

Also, good luck leading a healthy life without technology.


He didn't say either of those things. He said that the internet (and other high-tech) needs to be properly understood as a means to an end. It's a good point to make, insofar as it helps avoid naive techno-utopianism and focuses conversation on what really matters.
posted by graphnerd at 10:45 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Totally agree, the title is almost at odds with the content. I carried it through to this FPP but the editorial is short enough that I optimistically hope people will read it.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:47 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


(What country has Congress issued a declaration of war against, George and Barack? Terrorstan? Still waiting for my answer.)

Obama's administration very quickly stopped saying 'War on Terror' and changed it to 'Overseas Contingency Operation'. It's totally fair to criticize the policy, but if you're going to try to totally derail the conversation with cheap shots, it'd be helpful if you at least had your facts straight.
posted by graphnerd at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think this is a hell of an important point, and I'm glad it's being made. The way I usually tell this story is to point to the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the advent of the Cold War meant that both the US and the USSR were happy to have a massively expansive list of rights on the books so that they could chastise each other for failings and violations without anyone seriously believing that all those rights could be guaranteed in any concrete manner. Putting "Don't Torture" and "Paid Vacation" in the same list is a category mistake.

The same thing goes for the internet: you're going to feel silly on your cable modem when I've got Mind-Fi.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tell that to the Finns.
posted by infini at 10:50 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suppose I agree with him only so far as to say that the civil right to access the internet should be wholly derived from human rights. If that isn't abundantly clear, then we need to put a bit more thought into our enunciation of what those rights are.

Also, why not the obvious comparison to the second amendment? By his argument the second amendment is exactly what he is arguing against here, an attempt to promote a technology into a right.
posted by meinvt at 10:50 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


If free speech is a human right, then access to arguably the largest and most accessible free speech medium should also be a right. If you limit access to the medium, then you're practically limiting free speech.
posted by spiderskull at 10:58 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think some of you are missing the point. If a country is too poor to provide internet access to its citizens, is it violating their human rights? No. That is completely different from cutting off internet access with the intent of restricting people's right to information and free assembly. The point is, "we don't have the resources" is never a valid justification for violating true human rights.
posted by tom_r at 10:59 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights' Article 21 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.


Internet access is clearly required to fulfill Article 21 because you cannot fully access public services without internet access or understand how your voting impacts the government. You might not need gigabit ethernet piped into your home, but a baseline internet access sounds essential.

Ideally, we should require that mobile carriers provide a free-but-slow service for anyone with a phone, but the latency and bandwidth need not support voip, torrents, etc., reserving high throughput applications for people who pay their phone bills. Anyone who pays their mobile bill gets vastly better service. I'd consider public libraries better than nothing however.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:59 AM on January 5, 2012


Also, why not the obvious comparison to the second amendment? By his argument the second amendment is exactly what he is arguing against here, an attempt to promote a technology into a right.

I do like the notion of making that argument, and watching the NRA and 4chan form an unholy and unstoppable alliance.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:00 AM on January 5, 2012


If you limit access to the medium, then you're practically limiting free speech.

I think this is right.

Internet access is clearly required to fulfill Article 21 because you cannot fully access public services without internet access or understand how your voting impacts the government.

Does that mean that all governments were in violation of Article 21 before ARPANET?
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:01 AM on January 5, 2012


These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time

That's great. I don't think anyone is really arguing that access to a cable modem and a Macbook Pro are fundamental human rights. It's a short-hand for freedom of speech and freedom of access and freedom of association. Maybe in ten years there will be some other electronic web that connects us all that isn't called "The Internet", but you're splitting a pretty fine hair.

Access to something that allows me to air my views to the largest possible number of people is a right. The fact a soapbox in a London park has been replaced with a smartphone isn't important. They upgrade the police and suppression equipment too.
posted by yerfatma at 11:01 AM on January 5, 2012


Seems a bit hair-split-ish to me, at least in the context of the modern world

VERY hair-split-ish, and yeah, sorta baiting, as everyone's comments have indicated.

Good points, meinvt.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:01 AM on January 5, 2012


Isn't free association a human right?

Yes, and I think his point is that it's "free association" or "free speech" or whatever you're doing with the Internet that is (or should be) a protected, fundamental right -- but that the Internet itself, or access to it, isn't and shouldn't be enshrined as a human right.

And I think he's got a good point, even if it does seem hair-splittish. Consider if we were having this discussion a few decades ago. Suppose we had decided that "a free newspaper a day" was a human right. That might have been really nice at the time, but it doesn't help you -- in fact it leaves you in a very perilous position -- if most important speech moves onto a new medium. Because then the corporations and entrenched powers can gobble up and control access to the new medium and effectively get around the protection you were trying to achieve by enumerating the right in the first place.

So rather than protect a particular technology by saying that itself is a fundamental or human right, we should instead take a step back and consider more broadly what having that technology allows us to do, and protect that more generally.

Basic human rights are not static.

I guess that depends on what your definition of a "basic human right" is. But at least in the U.S. and British legal tradition, there is a long history of attempting to define and strongly protect a certain set of "fundamental" human rights, and part of the concept of what constitutes a fundamental right is that it's not specific to any particular time period; they very much are supposed to be static, and everyone is possessed of them simply by virtue of being human. (Although the way those rights are enumerated and protected via law, e.g. the Constitution, can change, but this is to cope with our limited and imperfect ability to correctly protect the underlying, fundamental rights.) There is something of a natural law argument beneath all of it, which my inner positivist snickers at, but I think is unavoidable and part of any discussion of human rights that's more than "well, it would be really nice if..."
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:04 AM on January 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


A little bit off topic, but maybe not... I have trouble with my eyes.
Even though I see better than at any point in my life, I have absolutely no business driving a car.
This fact did me out of several promotions at various jobs.
One could say that my physical inability to use this technology really affected my ability to provide for myself and my family.
Making a living *is* a human right. It is a duty if you have the physical ability to do so.
When not having a car was still a problem, the fact I could use a computer was a life-saver.
I think there is merit to considering access to means of livelihood and communication a human right.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:04 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


His argument appears reasonable, but one consequence of institutional adoption of his position would be that governments would have carte blanche to restrict internet access in whatever way they see fit to citizens; but in order for free speech and free association to have any real meaning, the means by which people exercise those rights cannot be abridged or restricted. This is very simple and obvious and he's ignoring the point because he wants companies and governments to be able to restrict access in ways that benefit them.
posted by clockzero at 11:04 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about a right to an education? Or to employment, which I believe is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Those would appear to me to be means to an end too but education in particular is something that would definitely qualify as a human right to me.

I wouldn't think that it'd be a specific technology that would be the right (in the same way that although education involves various skills and information, it's not any specific skill or information that you have a right to) but the technological capability, however implemented, to instantly communicate with a large percentage of the other humans in the world and access the stores of information that are widely available in this manner. I'd expect that capability in one form or another is with us for good now.
posted by XMLicious at 11:06 AM on January 5, 2012


I agree with him, for what it's worth. I've always been uncomfortable with the notion that some thing is a "right."

Now, that being said, if governments keep moving services such that they can best be accessed using the internet, then it is incumbent upon them to make internet cheap and easy to get (and hard to deny) for their citizens.

But this is not the same as a universal human right.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:06 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


People, I'll bet that Vint Cerf is all for the UN protecting a free and open internet. I just think he's saying you don't have to and shouldn't call it a "fundamental human right".
posted by sbutler at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


tom_r:

I think some of you are missing the point. If a country is too poor to provide internet access to its citizens, is it violating their human rights? No. That is completely different from cutting off internet access with the intent of restricting people's right to information and free assembly. The point is, "we don't have the resources" is never a valid justification for violating true human rights.

I think a right to internet access would be more of a freedom from coercion (restricting access by governmental fiat) than a freedom from want (not having it in the first place).
posted by clockzero at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2012


What does it actually mean for something to be a human right, legally in the USA? Obviously access to drinking water must be a human right, yet people still must pay a water bill in most cities (and are responsible for maintaining their own water supplies in rural areas).

Human rights aside, it seems clear that limiting access to the internet a la SOPA etc qualifies as "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press".
posted by finite at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2012


From the article:

...technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right.

He's not disagreeing that internet access is a necessary vehicle for the expression of a human right. So preventing access to that medium can certainly qualify as denying that human right. But suggesting that internet access itself is a fundamental human right demeans and cheapens the concept itself.
posted by graphnerd at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


It sounds like Vint Cerf is signalling a Google policy shift to "pro-COPA-or-something-like-it", or maybe that's the impression that Intellectual Property Controller New York Times wants to make.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2012


This is very simple and obvious and he's ignoring the point because he wants companies and governments to be able to restrict access in ways that benefit them.

This is Vint Cerf. He really doesn't. Many of the essentially peer-to-peer design principles of the internet are directly down to him.
posted by jaduncan at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


the entirely metaphorical "War on Terror" has been used by the last two presidents to justify innumerable abuses because we are "at war."

Everybody mis-heard Bush. He said war on terra (earth).
posted by telstar at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I optimistically hope people will read it.
posted by modernnomad at 11:16 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I suggest you reread my comment noting the words "equal access" and "fully", anotherpanacea.

UK Government Makes More Services Online Only (Nov 2010)
posted by jeffburdges at 11:18 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like Vint Cerf is signalling a Google policy shift to "pro-COPA-or-something-like-it", or maybe that's the impression that Intellectual Property Controller New York Times wants to make.

That seems like a real stretch from what he actually wrote, which seems to be the suggestion that internet access can be a great enabler of human and civil rights, without it necessarily being treated as one itself. See also 'the printing press'.
posted by modernnomad at 11:19 AM on January 5, 2012


Also, why not the obvious comparison to the second amendment? By his argument the second amendment is exactly what he is arguing against here, an attempt to promote a technology into a right.

If "arms" are "a technology", why isn't "the press"? I'd argue that "arms" is a category, not a specific technology (and given that modern firearms are considered "arms" just as internet magazines count as "the press", I suspect the Supreme Court would agree with me).

At any rate, our society shows less respect for civil rights every year -- I doubt a "right" to the internet will be any more difficult to eviscerate than the right to free speech or the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure (in fact, most offenses against the former damn well ought to be covered by the latter two).
posted by vorfeed at 11:20 AM on January 5, 2012


I just rtfa and while I can see the nuanced argument that Cerf makes regarding 'fundamental human rights' and how that shouldn't necessarily apply to enabling technologies, I will add though that by making it a citizen's right in Finland it gave impetus to the companies to get access out to the boondocks of that not very densely populated country, regardless of profitability.

This same thinking - as he mentions regarding the phone and Universal Access - it what is helping fund the expansion of mobile telephony into the boondocks of the world. Where, it is enabling and making a difference to social and economic development.

Perhaps the nuance should be between "fundamental human" and "citizen" ?
posted by infini at 11:22 AM on January 5, 2012


I'll grant that ponies aren't human rights, but pony requests..

Pony requests fall under "the pursuit of happiness" as one of those self-evident truths.

More seriously:
Isn't free association a human right?

Yeah, probably "free and unmonitored communication" should be considered a subset of "association."

You might not need gigabit ethernet piped into your home, but a baseline internet access sounds essential.

I dunno; I expect much of the planet gets by without it. It's only after the technology becomes common enough in your area that its lack becomes a hindrance. Thus, say, the concern for providing clean water and safe food before modems....

For what it's worth, I agree with his general argument. I am a librarian. There are always people urging that we "ban cellphones." And I argue that it's not the phone, it's the nuisance. Someone loudly Skyping from a public computer is a problem as is someone shouting at a friend. Someone talking quietly on their phone isn't an issue. So why focus on the technology rather than the level of disruption. "Freedom of safe communication" is more robust, I think.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:23 AM on January 5, 2012


I suggest you reread my comment noting the words "equal access" and "fully", anotherpanacea.

I suggest you reread the article noting the words "Middle East," "North Africa," and "human rights, jeffburdges. At present your evidence only demonstrates that the British require internet access in order to exercise their Article 21 rights.

Perhaps "the rights of Englishmen" have special important here, but I do not see why.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:32 AM on January 5, 2012


"Freedom of safe communication" can never be a basic human right as long as Information is a commodity that can be owned by private entities or controlled by Governments. It will always be limited. But then, there's always that "your right to swing your arm ends when it reaches my nose" argument. A genuinely free and open system of communication, internet or something not yet invented, will have an unlimited reach and will always hit somebody's nose. Is "safe communication" even possible? (Sorry, I just finished the poem in this post and I am filled with Utopian philosophy and all its contradictions right now.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:41 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do not have real internet access. I don't want to describe it in detail because it's just a parade of misery, but it works poorly when it does work and doesn't work at all for about 6 hours every day.

Real internet access is never going to exist in my part of the world, without internet access being seen as something as fundamental to a healthy life in the contemporary world as education and, to a lesser extent, telephones and transportation.

I feel somewhat bitter about the way the society I live in sees all of those things, actually, but I try not to. Philosophically, I more or less agree that internet access is not a basic human right, and if we lived in a utopia where our usage of technology and communication was entirely dependent on individual personal choice, then it'd be fine to just leave it there. Practically, no, large segments of society are being left behind, and internet access is only one of the neglected areas.
posted by byanyothername at 11:47 AM on January 5, 2012


He's not disagreeing that internet access is a necessary vehicle for the expression of a human right. So preventing access to that medium can certainly qualify as denying that human right. But suggesting that internet access itself is a fundamental human right demeans and cheapens the concept itself.

But if you are not assured unfettered access to the internet, isn't that...failing to guarantee access to the medium? i.e., opening the way for compromising or qualifying access to it? This seems like a distinction without a difference, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding.

I mean, saying that The Internet is a human right would be completely incoherent anyway.
posted by clockzero at 11:48 AM on January 5, 2012


Totally agree, the title is almost at odds with the content.

Headlines are never written by the article writer. I would bet a week's salary that the same is true for signed editorials (at least by non-editorial board writers).
posted by phearlez at 11:49 AM on January 5, 2012


See also 'the printing press'.

...Which offers another technology-specific precedent even more on point than the 2nd Amendment one mentioned upthread: the Freedom of the Press, as embodied in US law, also offers a technology-specific counterpoint to Vint Cerf's argument, reasonable as that argument might sound on the surface.

I don't think any argument that rights can't be technology-specific based on precedent stands on its own merits, but there's definitely some value in the argument, and I think I generally have some sympathy for the normative claims made in the argument, but it's definitely not the case that we haven't defined rights in technology-specific terms in our legal traditions in the past (not that Cerf seems to be making that originalist argument too strongly here, but it almost seems to be the implicit argument).
posted by saulgoodman at 11:53 AM on January 5, 2012



I don't think any argument that rights can't be technology-specific based on precedent stands on its own merits, but there's definitely some value in the argument, and I think I generally have some sympathy for the normative claims made in the argument, but it's definitely not the case that we haven't defined rights in technology-specific terms in our legal traditions in the past


I think a big part of the confusion here is that he's mostly talking about fundamental human rights, as well as civil rights. There are different types of rights (freedom of the press and freedom to bare arms being civil rights), and his point is that our conception of fundamental human rights shouldn't be tied to specific technologies.
posted by graphnerd at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2012


As a historical matter, Cerf is wrong. Universal access to forms of technology is a right that has been enshrined in law, one notable example being regulations that forced telco companies to bring telephone service to rural areas, which improved the quality of life for millions of people. The idea that broad access to technology should not be a right is one that is not borne out of history. Just because telephones (analog landlines) were supplanted by the Internet doesn't mean that having those laws wasn't important. Not only can we make access a right, but we have, and it hasn't had the effect that Cerf describes (otherwise, we'd all still be using landline phones).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:06 PM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are different types of rights (freedom of the press and freedom to bare arms being civil rights), and his point is that our conception of fundamental human rights shouldn't be tied to specific technologies.

True, but he also poo-poos (without categorically dismissing) the idea of framing civil rights in those terms a bit in this later passage:
What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right.
It seems to me he thinks the reasoning behind his argument applies in both cases, and maybe in a perfectly, logically ordered world, it would, but there's nothing self-evidently wrong with defining rights, generally, in technology-specific terms and there's ample legal precedent for it.

It occurs to me the concept of "Internet" could also be defined more abstractly (in the same way "Press" has come to mean something more abstract than a literal printing press machine) to potentially address the problems Cerf sees with this framing.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:10 PM on January 5, 2012


the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right.

This sentence reflects two very different understandings of what the term right means.

In one, a right is a property, an attribute, of one's common humanity; that's what the inalienable bit means in the US Constitution. No one speaks of whether a triangle should have three sides: having three sides is a property of being a triangle.

In the other, rights are synonymous with privileges, license, etc. which are granted by authorities. We don't usually speak of being granted our human or civil rights by governments, parents, or other powers.

Conflation of these two usages make me suspicious of an author's understanding of his topic.

if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

B-b-but --

If it wasn't for his horse, he wouldn't have spent that year at Google.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:19 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

I know where you can put it.
posted by Splunge at 12:20 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


also Herodios gets the actual historical and conventional distinctions exactly right, IMO. that's why rights are "enumerated" not "established" or "granted." The law can only explicitly name/define rights that are assumed to exist a priori, independent of law; the law doesn't grant or create rights, but it can "enumerate them" (i.e., list them) explicitly if necessary for purposes of clarifying intent.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:34 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights."

I am a technologist. This is among the most obnoxious things I've ever heard in my life. RICH PEOPLE GAIN CONTROL OF TECHNOLOGY (even technology that was created with the best of intentions, for example by me) AND USE IT FOR EVIL. They will continue to do this.

Utterly stupid article, manages to focus so completely on semantics that there's virtually no humanity in it at all.
posted by cbecker333 at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


But "Freedom of the Press" really is in conflict with Cerf's point, because, as I was reminded in my first college class in Journalism almost 40 years ago, "Freedom of the Press only applies to those who can afford to own one". (surprised it took me so long to remember that, in light of this discussion - I am getting old)
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:52 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doesn't a horse require at least one acre for running around and doing horse stuff?
posted by rahnefan at 12:56 PM on January 5, 2012


I find this a bit chilling.

It reminds me of those signs I see in downtown Seattle along popular walkways asserting that they are private property and that access is revocable at any time, and which are designed to prevent anyone from claiming a customary right of unrestricted passage by the public at large in the event the owner wants to develop or privatize the space.

Is it possible that an internal discussion is taking place at Google about whether and how long they want to continue to provide search, and all those other goodies, free of charge?

And that this is part of an advance campaign to prevent people from saying they can't charge fees because internet access has become a universal human right, and that such access includes necessities such as search?
posted by jamjam at 12:56 PM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am a technologist. This is among the most obnoxious things I've ever heard in my life. RICH PEOPLE GAIN CONTROL OF TECHNOLOGY (even technology that was created with the best of intentions, for example by me) AND USE IT FOR EVIL. They will continue to do this.

I don't think Cerf is talking about ambiguous creations in the way that fire or email can be used both for good or evil or as specific a definition of 'creators' as you're using. Someone technical helped China deploy the great firewall. Technologists wrote backdoors into encryption software. Programmers made a decision to work for web filtering software companies.

There are a lot of really slimy things implemented and installed by people in technology. I take no issue with the idea that I, as a programmer, bear some responsibility for the projects I opt to be a part of.
posted by phearlez at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2012


If you limit access to the medium, then you're practically limiting free speech.

Coughlin's populist message contained bitter attacks on the Roosevelt administration. The administration decided that although the First Amendment protected free speech, it did not necessarily apply to broadcasting, because the radio spectrum was a "limited national resource" and regulated as a publicly owned commons. New regulations and restrictions were created to force Coughlin off the air. And then:

Coughlin reasoned that although the government had assumed the right to regulate any on-air broadcasts, the First Amendment still guaranteed and protected freedom of the written press. He could still print his editorials without censorship in his own newspaper, Social Justice. However, the Roosevelt Administration stepped in again, this time revoking his mailing privileges[39] and making it impossible for Coughlin to deliver the papers to his readers. He had the right to publish whatever he wanted, but not the right to use the United States Post Office Department to deliver it.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:26 PM on January 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wonder if his perspective is also coloured by knowing it all (in the technological sense) too well and never quite realizing/understanding what it offers to someone, say, halfway across the world?
posted by infini at 1:38 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


That UN report has been widely and grossly misreported by lazy journalists and other commentators as some kind of official declaration of Internet access as a human right. Actually, it is merely a report by one advisor/public reporter working for the UN Human Rights Council that is meant to present an analysis and encourage discussion, and that's about it. The UN is, and always has been, a body which draws all its authority from nation-state governments. To really move towards declaring Internet access a human right or even endorsing that idea as an official UN position , it would need a critical mass of support from these member govts. Good luck with that!
posted by Bwithh at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2012


Not only can we make access a right, but we have,

No, the government mandating access ot something is NOT the same as making it a human right on the order of the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the Bill of Rights. Thats just a law granting access, which has no special priviledge and can be easily changed.

The concept of "human rights" are things that are inherent and inalienable, even IF the governments DONT grant them, they still exist. In the US, the only real technological right I can think of comes from the second amendment, and even that is VERY broad compared to The Internet ("arms" would be more or less on the order of specificity as "the press").

In the US, I think the Internet should generally be considered The Press, and as such is already covered by the First Amendment and doesn't need some sort of special protection. I'm less familiar with all the nooks and crannies of the UN Declaration.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:53 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Utterly stupid article, manages to focus so completely on semantics that there's virtually no humanity in it at all.

I would agree. It's hair-splitty and persnickety for the sake of being persnickety.

Internet access IS a human right. (Or it should be; two different animals.)
posted by blucevalo at 2:00 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think he's disagreeing with the premise, just with the idea of writing laws explicitly labeling technology in and of itself as a human right

Exactly! There are numerous examples wherein the legal system has enshrined specific technology into laws when really it should have been going after more general principles. This is why the FBI needs a warrant to tap your telephone, but not your Skype call. Idiotic.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:32 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kind of surprised this many people find a distinction between positive and negative rights, as well as which positive and which negative rights we should have as humans, as "hair-splitty". To me there's a huge distinction between "we need to protect a person's right to access the internet from governments or corporations that would try to prevent that person from exercising their right to free speech, free association and free press through this medium" and "we need to provide each person with access to the internet as a basic human right for reasons of equality and fairness because you can't have free speech, free association, or free press without it".

When you have the idea of a "right", and that right is either positive or negative, then it is literally a semantic argument as we try to determine whether the right is positive, negative, or even exists at all.
posted by TheFlamingoKing at 3:46 PM on January 5, 2012


Is it possible that an internal discussion is taking place at Google about whether and how long they want to continue to provide search, and all those other goodies, free of charge?

No. It is not possible at all.
posted by graphnerd at 4:21 PM on January 5, 2012


As a historical matter, Cerf is wrong. Universal access to forms of technology is a right that has been enshrined in law, one notable example being regulations that forced telco companies to bring telephone service to rural areas, which improved the quality of life for millions of people.

You didn't read the whole editorial. Cerf actually spends some time addressing your exact point & ends up conceding that a much stronger case exists for Internet access as a civil right (belonging to all citizens & other qualified residents within a technological nation such as ours) than a human one that must be provided to all people everywhere.
What about the claim that Internet access is or should be a civil right? The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.

While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.
posted by scalefree at 6:34 PM on January 5, 2012


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