Last week, Vint Cerf, one of the undisputed fathers of the Internet, published a controversial op-ed piece in the New York Times that confronted the emerging belief that access to the Internet is a human right. He is onto something with his argument that it may be more akin to a civil right, notwithstanding the proclamations of parliaments in Estonia, France and elsewhere.
I generally hold a broad view of rights, in part because I take the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence seriously. When Jefferson and company wrote that we are “endowed with certain unalienable rights [including] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they were taking an advanced view of the human condition and by the standards of the day, a radical one as well.
237 years after those words were written, we still find room to argue what “liberty” means, but I’d argue that Internet access comes closer to “the pursuit of happiness” than anything else. That’s because access is no longer a novelty or even a luxury; it’s a necessity. If you don’t believe me, go down to McDonald’s and ask for an application. To many franchisees, job applicants who can’t figure out how to apply online can’t be trusted to make a batch of fries, or get the right amount of special sauce on a Big Mac.
I’m not arguing that working at McBurgerJack Jr. leads directly to happiness, but there are an awful lot of people who would be happier working there than not at all. I have come to believe that Internet access is almost indispensable to participating in society; it’s certainly possible to be well-informed without the Net, but it’s nowhere near as easy as it used to be.
What sells me most on Cerf’s point of view is the comparison he draws with the “universal access” policy that was established during the years of AT&T’s monopoly over the telephone system. Concepts such as the party line helped subscribers gain access to the phone network, even if one had to share the circuit with the busybodies down the road.
In other words, I don’t yet believe that Internet access is an inalienable right, one that society should subsidize in the way that we do food or housing, but it is one of those things that define civilized life, like electricity or telephone service. I’m willing to go as far as saying that we should offer “lifeline” Internet access at a reduced rate, in a fashion similar to the way we offer our poorest households discounted and subsidized rates for phone and power.
Distinguishing between human rights and civil rights may be better left to philosophers, but technologists like Cerf are right to point out that technology creators have an obligation to support both kinds of rights. The hard part, as I see it, is getting an engineer to look past the question of “Can this be done?” and ask “Should this be done?”