Internet Access As A Human Right

Nuray Gündoğdu

Internet and the right of access to the internet is one of the most important and debated topics in the human rights area. Taking the power of internet as a supporting factor about access to information and improving democracy, as well as human rights and equality into account, it can be said that the effect and potential of the internet is undeniable.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) declared that forty eight per cent of the world’s population (4.3 billion) used the internet in 2017. [1] That number was 3.2 billion in 2015.

The United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…” It also recognizes “the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms” by a legally non-binding resolution in 2012.[2] The report of United Nations(UN) prepared by Special Rapporteur Frank Le Rue emphasized, accessing to content on the internet and a necessary infrastructure for internet. [3] Despite the fact that the UN accepted  internet access as a human right, debates about internet access are still continuing in the world.

Human rights law means that all people have a right to have fundamental rights and freedoms and live an equal, free and honourable life without any discrimination. The meaning and scope of human rights have extended and changed because of an evolved and sophisticated nature of human rights and people. Professor Susan Crawford  explains that “[t]ruly high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.”[4]

The European Council added internet access to the scope of European Convention on Human Rights by Recommendation CM/Rec(2011)8 in 2011. The Council stated that freedom of expression includes both online and offline practices, so online activities should be protected with Article 10 of the Convention.[5]

It can be seen that there is an undeniable link between internet access and human rights, especially in terms of freedom of expression and information. In relation to that link, numerous decisions were made in international area. The European Court of Human Rights explained that “The right to Internet access is considered to be inherent in the right to access information and communication protected by national Constitutions, and encompasses the right for each individual to participate in the information society and the obligation for States to guarantee access to the Internet for their citizens. It can therefore be inferred from all the general guarantees protecting freedom of expression that a right to unhindered Internet access should also be recognised.” in Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey decision.[6]   On 26 March 2009, The European Parliament declared that countries should provide  absolute and safe internet access to ensure e–democracy and states should avoid arbitrary limitations.[7]

Estonia accepted internet access as a human right in 2001. The French Constitutional Council decided that freedom of expression includes access to internet in a decision which was given on 10 June 2009. [8].

On the other side, there is a view which states that the internet is just a tool for human beings.  For instance, Vinton Cerf says that “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.”[9] Also, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly from the United States Federal Communications Commission said that internet is not a human right, because people can live without internet very well.  [10]

However, we cannot say that internet is just a part of technology or our lives. Because when we take the potential of the internet into account, we can see that the internet comprehends numerous human rights. Lack of internet means the lack of practice of human rights. For example, internet has had a very important role in protest and organisations in the “Arab Spring”, which governments had operated a tight internet censorship by cutting off access to the internet in order to prevent communication and demonstrations. It shows that lack of internet access is equivalent to lack of rights.

In the light of above, it is clear that human rights may continue existing without internet, but it just can be a little part of existence at this point. It shall not be said that it is just a tool for realization of human rights, because it is obvious that the internet is an important mean for implementing human rights. Therefore, some states block internet when they want to prevent citizens from using their human rights such as freedom of expression or information. When internet is cut off, there is no way to use these rights in real terms. Maybe internet access is not a horse for income-generating, but it is a window which shows all the world and beyond, thus all human beings may participate in life and the world in its fullest sense.

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