UN Report Declares Access to Internet a Human Right

By: Jane Abell on 8 June 2011

On Friday, Wired reported that United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression had released a report declaring access to the Internet to be a human right: “The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The idea of Internet access as a human right is not completely novel. At the March 2011 Meeting on Human Rights and the Internet in Stockholm, for example, the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition (IRP) created the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet, also known as "10 Internet Rights and Principles." According the IRP, these “rights and principles” should be upheld as ”the basis of Internet governance”:

  1. Universality and Equality
  2. Rights and Social Justice
  3. Accessibility
  4. Expression and Association
  5. Privacy and Data Protection
  6. Life, Liberty and Security
  7. Diversity
  8. Network Equality
  9. Standards and Regulation
  10. Governance

UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue’s report is consistent with the demand of the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet that “everyone has the duty to respect the human rights of all others in the online environment.”

According to The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), this report is the product of a year of research, during which La Rue researched and discussed the main threats to freedom of expression online with organizations such as EFF across the globe. He presented his findings during the seventeenth session of the UN Human Rights Council held in Geneva.

The report responds to global concerns over Internet restrictions. According to La Rue, the right to access also entails the right to privacy and anonymity, as “privacy is essential for individuals to express themselves freely.” The report targets nations such as Iran and China that are frequently criticized for strict censorship policies and for targeting controversial Internet activists and bloggers. However, the report also criticizes countries in Western Europe and North America for transgressing Internet users’ rights. Specifically, the report discusses the “three-strikes” laws recently enacted in France and the United Kingdom.

The “three-strikes” laws, which are commonly referred to as “graduated response" mechanisms in areas where baseball--and thus the metaphor of “three-strikes”--is uncommon, are legislative acts that ban users from accessing the Internet after three instances of copyright infringement. In an article on the laws, Ars Technica blog described the legislation as a, “three-strikes-and-you're-offline scheme.” First proposed in France in November 2007, this form of regulation has been adopted by other nations hoping to curb illegal P2P file-sharing. In both France and the UK, these laws have placed the power of enforcement and regulation of illegal file-sharing in the hands of ISPs. La Rue writes in his report that he believes the punishment is more insidious than the crime of file-sharing. Moreover, it is a small step from the regulation supported in this legislation to tthe use, in countries such as Turkey, of ISPs to support censorship.

The “three-strikes” laws are but one of several examples of governments using legislation to limit the rights of their citizens. La Rue warns in the report that “legitimate online expression is being criminalized in contravention of States' international human rights obligations.” The AtlanticWire explores the Obama administration’s response to the WikiLeaks scandal, which has been characterized as a war on whistle-blowers, as a prime example of what new UN legislation could help protect against: “such laws are often justified as being necessary to protect individuals' reputation, national security or to counter terrorism. However, in practice, they are frequently used to censor content that the Government and other powerful entities do not like or agree with.”