Forum: Is internet access a human right?

Debate needs to engage the general public

InternetNZ Cyberlaw Fellow at Victoria University, Jonathan Penney, has sparked wide-ranging discussion with a paper on the internet as a human right, which he summarised for a meeting at Victoria University late last month. The paper is expected to be published in its final form next month.

Labour party ICT spokeswoman Clare Curran has provided an arena for some of the comment in her corner of the party's RedAlert blog. Arguments there cover questions of the digital divide and digital literacy and the prospect of a growing set of government services being unavailable through any channel, apart from the internet. Certain transactions with Inland Revenue and Land Information New Zealand are already at this stage. Internet access is becoming a matter of broad public interest and an essential element of modern government practice.

The balance of views currently appears to favour the view that online access is, or will soon become a right -- a conclusion which Penney himself has reached.

"Digital literacy these days encompasses access to online resources," says NZ Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews, on the Society's blog. "These days digital literacy and access to online resources is [his emphasis] a right," he says. It's becoming harder and harder for citizens to participate in first-world society without it."

The argument has come to prominence in the wake of the abandoned Section 92A of the Copyright Act and the current Copyright (Infringing File-Sharing) Amendment Bill, which, while less forceful, still preserves the right to disconnect repeat online copyright infringers, albeit only for six months.

It was a Labour minister, Judith Tizard, who put internet access as a human right into the local vocabulary, suggesting, at the launch of a book on the history of New Zealand's internet in 2008, that such a status could be argued. However, she subsequently strongly backed s92A.

Arguments reach back to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." A similar principle is enshrined in Section 14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

However, such a right is clearly not absolute as laws against transmission of objectionable or defamatory material and breach of copyright show. "The invention of bogus rights like [internet access] will indirectly require legitimate rights to be violated," says Falafulu Fisi in a comment on the RedAlert blog.

Former Government CIO Laurence Millar suggests the internet is the modern equivalent of the roading network. He asks rhetorically "do we suggest there should be restrictions on who can walk down the road?" Fisi says this is a misleading comparison, as the roads are publicly funded and internet access is provided by private companies.

Consultant Peter Salmon points to an entry on his blog where he suggests, largely through reference to other commentators, that companies such as Apple and Google are already effectively privatising practical access to the internet.

"The combination of limited phone/data mobile networks and limited providers of hardware tends to suggest that we are moving to a new cyberworld, one which is much more regulated and probably more expensive. It is probable that we will look back on the 1990s and 2000s as the good old days," he says. "We need to take steps to ensure consumer rights are protected and that we do not fall victims as collateral damage to the battle between the titans."

Penney says the final version of his paper should be out next month. Before then, however, he plans to "write some detailed blog posts setting out much of my arguments in online form, so people will have something to cite or refer to in the meantime." These posts are likely to appear on the InternetNZ website.

Questions of the right of access to information and countervailing rights to privacy have long bubbled beneath the surface of rapidly advancing and ever more widely used computer technology. This is clearly no longer a topic just for ICT experts and civil liberties mavens, but a debate that needs to engage the general public. They, after all, make up most of the users of the internet.

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