But the thought of the Internet as ‘a new human right’ never sat well with me.

So this week, I decided to do something novel: read the UN report that started that trend for myself. And guess what? That’s not what it says.

In discussions about the future of the Internet, many folks will say that the United Nations (UN) sees Internet access as a basic human right – this has been a common refrain since UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue published his 2011 report.

That report calls the Internet “one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.”
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It says that “the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights“.
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Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19 was written “to include and to accommodate future technological developments through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of expression” – like the Internet.

Therefore, the UN says restricting or denying access to the Internet is a violation of an existing human right: the right to freedom of expression.

This UN report doesn’t suggest that we make it a new human right to access the Internet. In fact, it says that article 19 was specifically designed to cover future technologies, so we wouldn’t have to.

Also, since the right to freedom of expression is an “enabler” of other rights, like the rights to freedom of association and assembly, “the Internet also facilities the realization of a range of other human rights”.

So, this UN report is not saying that access to the Internet is a human right in itself.

What the UN is saying is, given how closely our right to freedom of expression is currently tied to the Internet, it’s worth laying down some ground rules for what protecting freedom of expression–and other human rights–in the Internet age means.

It’s is a subtle, but very important difference. It means we can focus on the Internet as a key enabler of human rights (which is critical right now), without enshrining this particular technology as a ‘right’ in and of itself when it may (will) one day be obsolete.

As Vint Cerf, one the of the ‘fathers of the Internet’ said:

There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right... It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

This makes a huge amount of sense to me.

So, a big thumbs up the UN and Mr. Cerf for suggesting this approach – and thumbs down to the media for not reading (or willfully ignoring) the subtleties of the report in favour of a flashy headline.

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Here’s to you, Frank La Rue and Vint Cerf.