The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

About a year ago, the Jester gave a version of his “Myths of ICT4D” talk to an audience of Indian students. Among them was Samujjal Purkayastha, who in an follow-up e-mail asked what the Jester thought of Finland making the Internet a human right. The Finns passed a law requiring that every household in the country have access to a 1Mbps broadband connection. Estonia, France, Greece, Spain, and Costa Rica have followed suit with similar legislation, providing further fodder for self-unaware techno-utopians like Nicholas Negroponte, and fueling ongoing public discussion in international development.

The rhetoric of human rights is emotionally powerful. Anyone who argues against X as a human right must answer the challenge, “How can you deny someone X, when X is so essential?” And of course, few people — not even the Jester in his most Luddite of moods — are explicitly for denying anyone the Internet. (The exceptions are dictators losing their grip on a country making a last-ditch effort to stymie the opposition by cutting communication lines. It does seems to the Jester, though, that any dictator willing to suppress his opposition by force and shut down the Internet will hardly be concerned about public shaming by some foreign diplomats.)

But, the question is not whether to deny someone something that they’ve never had, but whether, of all the things they could have next, the Internet should be it. Unfortunately, when the list of things they don’t have includes reasonable access to clean water, quality primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and basic sanitation, the Internet falls far far behind in the list of priorities. (Nor, incidentally, can any of those things be meaningfully addressed via the Internet. The Jester does not encourage young ICT4D PhD candidates to work on a mechanism by which to convert bits to water, at least not if they wish to finish their dissertation within the third millennium. )

Human rights rhetoric admits no greys. It allows no ordering of priorities. In fact, the whole point of anyone arguing for X as a human right is to turn what is in fact a question of when and how much into one of black-and-white either/or. Proponents hope that once something is accepted as a right, those in power will spare no expense to provide it universally. 

Unfortunately, this logic is short-sighted and counterproductive if true development, and not the selling of some technology product or service, is the goal. As the Jester has written ad infinitum, the Internet is of minimal value to a poor, undereducated farmer earning less than $2 a day. Countries with the highest rates of Internet penetration today are those that happened to be rich already (and which, incidentally, often also have the highest penetration of lots of other things requiring money, such as automobiles). The belief that the Internet makes a country rich is not far from the belief that sticking one’s tongue out makes one Michael Jordan.

Even if broadband access were to cost as low as $5 per month (the current cost of a monthly broadband subscription in India, likely among the lowest in the world), at $60 a year, that is a sum that could be put to use much more meaningfully towards other purposes, such as contributing to a clean-water kiosk, hiring assistant teachers for classes to boost educational outcomes, purchasing decent medical insurance, or installing a latrine.

Furthermore, by adding yet another item to the growing list of human rights, Internet-rights activists diminish the emphasis on those rights that might truly deserve special status. The world is very far even from guaranteeing clean water and minimal nutrition to all 6.7 billion people on the planet. Given that, it’s pure delusion to suggest that international development is ready to take on an information technology as a universal right.

And, if none of that is convincing, consider that the world is marching steadily and quickly towards a world in which everyone will have access to the Internet via their mobile phones. The latest figures are around 5.3 billion mobile phone accounts and 2 billion Internet users. Hungry telecoms will make it happen, anyway, so why should good people interested in development waste their time when other development objectives are being neglected?

None of this is to suggest that Finland, or any other country in particular, is  wrong to provide the Internet to all. For countries that have secured water, nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, and education for every one of their people (as Finland has more or less done), the Internet seems a reasonable next step. But, if developing countries have an aspiration to be more like Finland, it seems clear that there are many other priorities before universal broadband. To start, countries ought to learn from the Finn’s terrific educational system, which, incidentally, uses relatively little ICT.

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7 Responses to “The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?”

  1. Jaume Fortuny Says:

    Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people.

    Internet is just a tool as it has been the steam engine or the plow. But the big difference is that this is not a tool that you can buy with more or less money. We are talking about a right of access to the world. An access limited by the availability of infrastructure, the costs of access and skills in their use. And restrict this right means to condemn the ones without infrastructure, or economic capacity or without skills enough to the lower layers of society. Not having access to the Internet creates more and more deep differences in our society. And for the coexistence and the people dignity, we can not afford it.

    Governments worldwide should have Internet as a basic universal service as they do (or try to) with water, energy and sanitation. But considering what Internet represents in the quality of life of people, in poverty reduction and in cohesion of society, clearly Internet should be declared a human right.

    And from Finland, take the good things, such as its capacity for innovation and its commitment to technology. That made of Finland the cradle of mobile technology. And mobile technologies are given us a lot of new chances 4D.

  2. The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong? – Ethnos Project Crisis Zone Says:

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  3. Tony Roberts Says:

    Dear Jester, thanks for another stimulating and provocative post.

    If, as I think we agree, ICT can amplify the existing intent and capacity of people purposefully engaged to secure their rights (or human development), then should we not secure access to ICTs as an effective tool in the struggle to achieve these just ends?

    As you say, the structure of human rights declarations allows no ordering of priorities (otherwise we drown arguing that there should be no right to education until everyone has sanitation or somesuch nonesense). Human rights are indivisible and interdependent; ICTs often prove useful tools in their pursuance.

    In a world where oppressed groups with the volition and potential ability to overturn dictators and challenge injustice, chose the internet, or other ICTs as the most efficacious tools in a stage of their struggle, should we deny them the right?

  4. My Internet, Right or Wrong « The ICT4D Jester Says:

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  5. My Internet, Right or Wrong « The ICT4D Jester Says:

    […] fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan […]

  6. My Internet, Right or Wrong – Ethnos Project Crisis Zone Says:

    […] fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan […]

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