My Internet, Right or Wrong

The stars have aligned for the Jester, who is 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 and U.N. Special Rapporteur, Frank William La Rue, in affirming the need for the Internet to be a human right. (Thanks to @jeffswin and @fortuny for bringing the Pakistani and U.N. news to the Jester’s attention. The Jester chuckled at @fortuny’s triumphant tone, and appreciated @random_musings’s wry remark about the U.N. ignoring the Jester. The Jester demands that his country be recognized by the United Nations!)

In light of both grassroots and grass-tops support for the Internet as a human right, it might seem all too foolish for the Jester to rant against the idea. Nevertheless, ranting is the Jester’s favorite pastime. If only some queendom would actually pay him for it!

The Jester has already posted his arguments against human-right-ism of ICT. So, he will focus on rebutting rebuttals.

Fool-for-the-Day Jaume Fortuny begins, “Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people,” and continues with several such platitudes. The Jester is certainly not against social harmony, personal development, or dignity in the lives of people, and actively believes that these things should be worked on very directly.

The real question is not whether these things are important, but how best to achieve them. ICT, alas, is simply not even a partial cure for challenging social problems. Technology amplifies human intent and capacity. Consider social harmony: if people want to fight rather than to reconcile, then the Internet only makes the fighting more intense. Witness the phenomenon of cyber-balkanization in the United States, for example, where conservatives and liberals each have their vocal representatives and blogs, and only scream more loudly at each other. Just a quarter of a century ago, it was common for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate on legislation. Today, with the miracle of the Internet, politicians are even more beholden to their constituents, and constituents isolate themselves in parallel Internet universes that never intersect. Is that ICT-enabled social harmony?

Mr. Fortuny is on firmer ground when he suggests that developing countries might want to learn from the Finnish capacity for innovation. The Jester agrees, but capacity for innovation and use of technology are two different things. It’s relatively easy to drive a car; it’s much harder to engineer one (and then to profit from it). Not understanding that difference is at the heart of much ICT confusion.

FftD Tony Roberts asks, “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?”

The Jester has two responses to this question: First, Mr. Roberts may have misunderstood the nature of a declared “human right” as the Jester was critiquing it. The Jester never said that anyone should be actively denied the use of the Internet. Though it may come as a surprise to readers, the Jester doesn’t go around sabotaging telecenters as a side hobby!

The question is whether the Internet must be actively made available to everyone, which is the implication of something being a human right. There are many things that are desirable, but which cannot practically be provided for all, and are not absolutely critical to dignified human life. For example, if Twitter ever becomes necessary for dignified human life, the Jester will likely take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix.

Note that the United Nations has not issued a declaration of the human right to gasoline-powered vehicles, even though it could be argued that physical mobility is an even more fundamental need than the ability to watch YouTube. Despite the immense utility of transport, human beings can, amazingly, live decent lives without automobiles (unlike food, water, air, shelter, or basic healthcare), and it would likely burst  developing country budgets to provide transport to every citizen.

A second interpretation of Mr. Roberts question might be that for the very sake of fighting for human rights, shouldn’t we make the Internet a human right? This point of view is particularly relevant given the current uprisings in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is also very circular. It falls into the category of the most common response that the Jester receives: “If X, not ICT, is what’s important in development, then how about using ICT for X?”

If the Jester had a dime for every time someone asked him that, he would simply fund a T1 line for everyone on the planet, just so that we could all move on to the real challenges. Of course, it would be nice if freedom fighters everywhere (the good ones, anyway) could have access to the Internet so that they could communicate with each other and the world, while their evil oppressors are stuck with carrier pigeons. Maybe if declaring the Internet a human right got us one inch closer to that possibility, we ought to do it. FftD Frank La Rue in his report writes, U.N.“ Special Rapporteur calls upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” (The Jester would like to know, where did they come up with his fancy title, and can he have one like it, too? Perhaps, Special Royal Gluteal Ache to the U.N.)

But the reality is that any dictator willing to shut down or censor the Internet is already engaged in violating other more important human rights, such as the right not to be shot in the head or tortured by secret police. Mr. La Rue filed his report on May 16, a couple of months after the Syrian uprisings began.

The Jester likes to imagine President Bashar al-Assad having the following moral quandary: “In order to stay in power, I’ve killed a thousand of my fellow citizens, detained tens of thousands, and even had one 13-year-old tortured and killed. But, the U.N. says the Internet is a human right. Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t shut off the Internet. Hmm, what to do…?”

On June 3, al-Assad reportedly shut down much of the Syrian Internet.

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One Response to “My Internet, Right or Wrong”

  1. slp Says:

    If a government is oppressive (insert brutal regime here) surely the use of ICT by the people as a means of activism, reporting and organisation leads to some kind empowerment, balance and voice, at a minimum, and should be supported (it gives the Jester a voice afterall?). Check out LiberationTech mail list for many great examples. I think this is the argument that people try to convey. They are not saying that ICT access should come before health, food, education etc .

    Although giving access to the ICT does not address the political and economic problems in developing countries, it can help improve the lives of people in small and large ways (and sometimes not at all).

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