The internet as human right

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Anybody working in an office, studying in school, or corresponding or reading from home -- in short: everybody -- would readily accept that the internet is hooked up to our lives. To a perceptibly uncomfortable degree. Lack of water? Late newspapers? Not a problem. But no or slow internet access? People are immediately up in arms. However, to what extent can citizens indeed demand internet access? And what is government’s responsibility in this regard?

These questions came up with OpenSignal’s (http://opensignal.com/) recent survey showing the respective countries’ broadband speed. Apparently, six million users volunteered data from all over the world, with the result that the Philippines came "in the slowest of our qualifying countries." The Philippines also came last with regard to time and speed on LTE (Long Term Evolution).

Note that the Philippine Constitution has certain provisions that could be said to relate to internet access. Thus, the Constitution provides that the State "shall give priority to education, science and technology"; that "no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press"; and that "the right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized."

That access to the internet has indeed come to the level of a "right" was raised in a UN Report (by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, May 16, 2011): "While blocking and filtering measures deny users access to specific content on the Internet, States have also taken measures to cut off access to the Internet entirely. The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

The Report, therefore, called on "all States to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest. 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."

There is a difference, though, between not blocking the internet and actually providing access to the internet. If the latter, then an argument could indeed be made that the slow broadband speeds and such other lack of access for Filipinos could be a violation of human rights.

This is Nilay Patel’s point (The Verge, "The Internet is Fucked," Feb. 25): "Over the course of the past 20 years, the idea of networking all the world’s computers has gone from a research science pipe dream to a necessary condition of economic and social development, from government and university labs to kitchen tables and city streets. We are all travelers now, desperate souls searching for a signal to connect us all."

In the end, Mr. Patel declares that the "the internet is a utility" and that "internet access isn’t a luxury or a choice if you live and participate in the modern economy, it’s a requirement."

Neil Eustaquio, a 4th year student of the Ateneo Law School, agrees: "The internet is a public good fundamental for the full realization of human rights."

I had the privilege of helping Mr. Eustaquio (who also holds a Master’s Degree in Management from the University of Asia and the Pacific) in his thesis "Right To Intenet As International Human Right." Quite frankly, I now find his conclusions (I previously took the conservative view, i.e., that the right to the internet is limited to merely not blocking access) astute and prescient.

As Mr. Eustaquio wrote: "The Right to Internet is a human right. This statement finds its basis in the premise that the Right to Internet: (1) emanates from the human right to freedom of opinion and expression, the human right to information, the human right to peaceful assembly, the human right to development, the human right to participate in cultural life, and the human right to education; (2) is necessary in today’s world to respect, protect, and fulfill the said human rights; and (3) has been implicitly and explicitly recognized as a human right in various international documents."

The right to the internet is not absolute. As Mr. Eustaquio pointed out: "Some valid limitations to the Right to Internet on the basis of international criminal law include limitations on speech that constitute: (a) direct and public incitement to genocide; (b) incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence; (c) incitement to terrorism; (d) and child pornography. Other grounds for limitations include: (a) cybersecurity; (b) computer-related fraud and forgery; and (c) copyright and related rights."

Philosophers may probably have something to say about the logic of making a thing a "right" simply because it became a necessity. On my part, I’d like to paraphrase John Henry Newman: we have rights because we have duties.