Internet: A Fundamental Human Right?

The internet shutdown in Egypt in January 2011 sparked a lively debate on whether access to the internet is a fundamental human right or not? This discussion has re-emerged with the recent release of the report by Frank LaRue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of speech and expression. The report identifies the internet as the key means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom of expression. The report concludes that the same framework that safeguards the right to freedom of expression must govern the right to internet access.

While welcomed by many, the characterization of internet access as a fundamental right has not been unanimously embraced.

For the many activists relying on the internet in their fight for freedom and democracy the question of whether the internet should be a protected right, the answer would no doubt be a resounding yes. The international outrage following the Egyptian internet blackout would indicate that this position is widely held. Indeed, according to a 2010 BBC poll, four out of five adults, across 26 countries, regard internet access as a fundamental right.

 The counter argument questions whether internet access may be a misplaced priority when staggering numbers of people do not have access to life’s most basic necessities – food, water, housing, healthcare. Access to the internet, as the argument goes, is out of place on that list.

 If the internet is viewed merely as one means of sharing and receiving information, and more specifically as a means available to only a fraction of the world’s population, its characterization as a fundamental right can be difficult to justify. However, this view may too narrowly define the impact that the internet has in today’s world. There is no other medium of communication with the reach, breadth of information, or interactivity of the internet. In more developed countries, where information from a variety of sources is readily available, it is easy to see the internet as a luxury or a convenience. However, to those living in developing countries, particularly ones with repressive regimes, the internet can play a far more fundamental role.

Additionally, the knowledge exchange facilitated by the internet supports a host of other basic rights. Internet technology allows people access to knowledge in all fields and areas of life that would otherwise be unattainable. A single internet kiosk in a rural town or region can have a dramatic effect on improving agriculture, healthcare, and education. As aptly noted by Mr LaRue, the internet, as an ‘enabler’ of other human rights, “boosts economic, social, and political development, and contributes to the progress of human kind as a whole.” When viewed from this perspective, perhaps the right to internet access is not such a misplaced priority after all. The debate will undoubtedly continue.

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3 Responses to “Internet: A Fundamental Human Right?”


  1. 1 Ivan Nikoltchev July 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    The OSCE media freedom representative recently expressed a clear position in this debate:

    “WASHINGTON, 15 July 2011 – Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, called on governments to treat Internet access as a human right that should be enshrined in their constitutions, in testimony today at the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

    “In order to pay tribute to the unique contribution the Internet has given
    to participatory democracy, to freedom of expression and to freedom of the media, it is only fitting to enshrine the right to access the Internet on
    exactly that level where such rights belong, as a human right with constitutional rank,” Mijatović said. “Without this basic requirement, without the means to connect, without an affordable connection, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media become meaningless in the online world. The second requirement is to stop restricting free flow of
    information on the Internet. The free flow of information is the oxygen of
    cyberspace! Without it the Internet becomes a useless tool.”

    Mijatović spoke at a Commission hearing devoted to Internet freedom in the OSCE region. The Representative’s Office last week presented the results of the first OSCE-wide study on Internet regulation. The report is available at: http://www.osce.org/fom/80723

  2. 2 Michael July 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I dont see how the internet could be categorised as a fundamental human right. It is a commercial product that you have to pay for the privilege of using, whether it is through your own connection at home or at an internet cafe, or indeed a library. This also means that your provider is entitled to remove your internet connection when they see fit. If the internet were a right then they would not be able to do this. I agree that access to knowledge is an important right, but the means by which we access that knowledge is not. A person can access information from the encyclopaedia Britannica, this does not mean its everyones fundamental human right to have a copy of it in there homes; however, they can access it at a library. Im sure there are many arguments like my one, and equally arguments for the internet to be a fundamental right. I find this very interesting and look forward to seeing what the outcome of this debate will be!

  3. 3 Tony October 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Any call on governments to treat Internet access as a human right that should be enshrined in their constitutions is adding more burden to the burden of governments which are increasingly finding it hard to feed their citizens and meet their other fundamental obligations. The less developed and developing countries would see it as mere promotion of business interest of the developed countries that stands to benefit financially from the idea. Each country should be left to decide when how best to embrace the internet.


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