Internet Outages Are A Violation Of Human Rights

In my mind there are very few human rights1. On Wikipedia, it says that human rights are, “rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled”. Semantically, I have a problem with this definition for two reasons. First, it doesn’t mention the responsibilities that are inherently involved with rights. Second, it uses the word entitled. I hate that word with a passion. My own personal definition of a human right is, “Something which, if denied, would dehumanize an individual.” I think that it fits very well.

Let’s look at what needs to be understood in regards to human rights. Humans are individuals, so rights should be broad enough to encompass all people individually, but not so broad as to excessively include sub-units of people. This means that rights should apply equally to all people, but there shouldn’t be rights that are only exercised by a niche group of people. This is the difference between a right that allows people to practice Buddhism (and each religion individually), and a right that allows people to practice a religion.

Next up is the restriction that rights should be universally agreed upon, or, at least agreed upon by a vast majority of people. This doesn’t require further explanation, as it is fairly straight-forward. Following this train of thought, rights should be the most important issues that face everyone. People in the Democratic Republic of Congo don’t care about the universal right to volunteer association. On the off chance that they do, they surely don’t care about the universal right to the internet. Those are the main restrictions on a definition of a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is therefore in violation of this definition, as many of the rights are actually redundant.

One clarification on human rights is that they are not permanently applied to every individual. These are rights that people are born with around the world, and regardless of sex, race, religion or any other mitigating factor, you inherently possess them at birth. However, these rights are not guaranteed throughout life. For example, if you kill someone, you are no longer guaranteed the right of liberty. You aren’t just free to go wherever and to do whatever you want. If this were the case, then every justice system in the world – that is built upon the rights of the individual – is suddenly contradictory and broken. Obviously, we can’t have that.

Back to the point about the internet being a universal right. Yes. The universal right to the internet. The reason I bring this up is because the ‘creator’2 of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, recently stated that, “Access to the Web is now a human right”. There are a few problems I have with this.

The first is that it doesn’t meet my definition. This may seem like a rather petty distinction, as I could have just come up with the definition so that his idea of a human right doesn’t meet it.3 This is my first problem, and it isn’t one that can be overcome. Berners-Lee is a fairly smart guy, and he isn’t just going to rescind his opinion on the internet being a human right. Nor am I going to change my definition.

The next problem I have with his opinion is that it is incredibly arrogant. The internet is essentially a tool. Perhaps it can even be seen as infrastructure. But the idea that it can be seen as an equal to the right of liberty, or life, or even the controversial right to clean water (that one is up in the air as to whether or not it is a right). The idea that something that the markets created, that is a creation of man, and that the world survived without (for many millennia, I might add) is now as important as life, is absurd. Beyond being an absurd declaration on the part of Berners-Lee, he is being very conceited in adding the internet to the list of rights.

These aren’t the only problems I have with this statement though; the list goes on. The internet has been around since the 1960’s and 70’s.4  50 years is not long enough to even tell if the product will be around forever, let alone have it be a basic, universal human right. This is simply a fact.

My final problem is more of a semantic/technical one. This problem is that there is no clear definition of what the ‘internet’ is. There is an assumed definition, which is the sharing of information over wires. But people in China have access to this, but not the same level of access that people in the United States or Western Europe have. Does access to the internet assume that the access is unfiltered? Does it assume certain protocols are in use? There are many questions along these lines, and Berners-Lee doesn’t really address them.

The idea that the internet will turn into a human right, is, of course, ridiculous. No one is going to vote on something as absurd as this (maybe I am speaking too soon, but I don’t think so), and it most definitely won’t pass. Why bring it up then? Simple. When he says that the internet is a human right, it dilutes the meaning of human rights. Then when people are saying there are human rights violations happening in China, people should think about the people being wrongfully imprisoned and assassinated. Instead, Berners-Lee equates the revocation of internet use to the killing of innocent people. This is wrong of him to do, and he should refrain from doing so.

Perhaps what he should say instead, is that the internet is a right of people in free and fully industrialized nations. This is still unlikely to ever be passed, but at least he doesn’t equate an internet outage to a village massacre5.




1: The few that are universally agreed upon are the most important and fundamental rights in the world.

2: Apostrophes because it wasn’t really a one-man job, but he is credited with it.

3: You’ll just have to take my word for it, I didn’t.

4: These are rough estimates, as there is no exact date for when the internet was created. Instead, it evolved from the telegraph system into a system of interconnected terminals. The creation of the internet is more along the lines of an advent, rather than an invention.

5: Clearly, I am grossly exaggerating. But you all get the point.

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