The United Nations has declared that access to the Internet is the right of all human beings. Nations should not institute any laws that prevent its citizens from accessing the Internet, according to a recent document published by the UN Human Rights Council. The document is a report by Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
As you may recall, when Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government was crumbling, it essentially disabled Internet access for the entire country, cutting off the global mouthpiece of protesters. Ultimately, the tactics proved to be futile, but it does raise concerns that freedom of expression and freedom to access information can be easily disconnected from the people by governments or commercial organizations that control it.
La Rue says this problem is not limited to places where there is political unrest. France and the UK, for example, are implementing “three strikes” laws that will ban citizens from the Internet if they are caught illegally downloading copyrighted material, a power that could easily be abused.
Furthermore, some governments take steps to limit Internet access or publishing rights based on “national security” or counter terrorism, but in the end, it is ultimately a tool used to censor content that the governments do not want people to see, La Rue explained. WikiLeaks is a prime example.
The report further argues, “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…”
Like other UN declarations, it is ultimately up to the governments of the world to make sure their citizens have access, and many have already demonstrated they have little regard for human rights. Nevertheless, for those who believe access to the Internet is as much a right as the printed word, it is an important step, even if it is only symbolic.