The Folly Of Internet Freedom: The Mistake of Talking About the Internet as a Human Right
February 15, 2012
In the past two years, protesters against authoritarian regimes have begun to heavily use social-networking and media services, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and cell phones, to organize, plan events, propagandize, and spread information outside the channels censored by their national governments. Those governments, grappling with this new threat to their holds on power, have responded by trying to unplug cyberspace.
Some examples: In April 2009, angry young Moldovans stormed government and Communist Party offices protesting what they suspected was a rigged election; authorities discontinued Internet service in the capital. In Iran, the regime cracked down on protesters objecting to fraudulent election outcomes in June 2009 by denying domestic access to servers and links, and by slowing down Internet service generally — although protesters and their supporters found ways around those restrictions. In Tunisia, when protests against President Zine el Abidine ben Ali escalated in December 2010, his government sought to deny Twitter services in the country and hacked the Facebook accounts of some Tunisian users in order to acquire their passwords. In Egypt, amid mass protests in Cairo and several other cities in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s government attempted to disconnect the Internet. But there, too, protesters found limited workarounds until the doomed regime eventually restored some services.
Authoritarians may have reason to fear cyberspace. It is widely believed that the proliferation of Internet access and other communications technologies empowers individuals and promotes democracy and the spread of liberty, usually at the expense of centralized authority. As Walter Wriston optimistically put it in his 1992 book The Twilight of Sovereignty: “As information technology brings the news of how others live and work, the pressures on any repressive government for freedom and human rights will soon grow intolerable because the world spotlight will be turned on abuses and citizens will demand their freedoms.”
Two decades later, the hope that cyberspace will promote international peace and cooperation shines brighter than ever. To this end, the Obama administration has undertaken a project to promote its vision of cyberspace around the world. It was launched with the 2009 announcement in Morocco of the “Civil Society 2.0 Initiative,” a collection of efforts to help grassroots organizations use cyberspace to advance their goals. As the president explained at a 2009 forum in Shanghai, responding to a question about Internet censorship, “The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment in a 2010 speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Internet can help bridge differences between religious groups and create “one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all.” In addition, she noted, there are the practical economic benefits of connectivity: cyberspace has become a critical ingredient for economic growth — “an on-ramp to modernity” — often by enabling producers to specialize and open new markets, and by generally improving productivity. Secretary Clinton further declared her intent to place Internet freedom on the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Council; launch a program to use cyberspace to “empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy” in cooperation with industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations; and strengthen the Global Internet Freedom Task Force formed during the Bush administration.
Since then, the Obama administration has promoted cooperation with the private firms that own and operate the Internet’s infrastructure in hopes of establishing standards to promote freedom in cyberspace; it has protested diplomatically when foreign states impinge on their citizens’ free use of the Internet; and it has resisted foreign attempts to transfer Internet governance from technical organizations to political organizations, most notably to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor issued $5 million in grants to private organizations developing technologies to enable unrestricted access to the Internet and secure communications over mobile devices. The department hopes to issue $30 million more.
Secretary Clinton’s Newseum speech, and a follow-up address she delivered in early 2011 at George Washington University, are important not only because of the initiatives they launched, but also because they articulate the administration’s perception of cyberspace’s role in international relations. Central to this view is
the freedom to connect — the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.
Indeed, Clinton equated the “freedom to connect” with the freedom of expression and association as codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While well-intentioned, the administration’s efforts to advance the cause of “Internet freedom” as a human right should raise some concerns. First, despite the admirable desire to apply the nation’s enduring principles to the rapidly evolving realm of high technology, framing “Internet freedom” as a human right risks weakening the very concept of human rights. Further, by lending its prestige and credibility to the international cause of Internet freedom, the U.S. government may actually make it more likely that tyrannical regimes will crack down on the Internet.
Consider first the administration’s desire to tie Internet freedom to human rights. A simple interpretation of the “freedom to connect” might be as a negative right: freedom from government interference in one’s access to and activities on the Internet — just as the right to free speech protects the individual from censorship but does not guarantee a means of publication. The administration’s way of framing the issue, however, opens the door to something else: a positive right to the use of a technology. That is to say, the right’s existence is predicated on the existence of the technology rather than on our intrinsic humanity. Cyberspace is, after all, a created medium. Someone designed, built, owns, and operates this infrastructure of servers, software, and network operating centers. A “right” to use it is a claim of entitlement to a particular technology and thus is based on the nature of the technology, not on the nature of the claimant.
Indeed, in the case of cyberspace, the administration’s interest in the nature of the technology and its social impact is what led it to assert access as a right. Clinton argues that the Internet differs from other technologies, and is therefore special as it relates to human rights: “the Internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms.” This is a fair point, but simply in terms of human rights, it is beside the point: tying human rights to the state of technology, however powerful, is an intellectual rabbit hole, at the bottom of which human rights are deprived of the very thing that makes them unique — the fact that we possess them because we are human.
The problem here lies in the larger agenda the administration is promoting wrapped in the cause of rights. Secretary Clinton’s vision for cyberspace is of “a single Internet where all humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Ultimately, she said, “this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.”
This government-sanctioned vision of what constitutes “community,” “common knowledge,” and “opportunity” for all not only goes beyond the question of protecting basic rights, but in some ways may well be incompatible with the nature of the Internet itself, if not the immense diversity of religious faiths, political beliefs, and moral perspectives by which people live their lives…