Dozens of online journals this week trumpeted the news of a fresh report (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression) by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The ‘scoop’ headlines read ‘UN declares Internet access a human right’, ‘Internet access is a human right, United Nations report declares Internet access a human right’, and variations of the same theme with the words ‘Internet access’ ‘United Nations’ and ‘human rights’ juxtaposed in the same heading.
But critical as I am of the way developments in this field are described in the media (and of course, being a close follower of such developments), I questioned these headings: did the UN really make this declaration?
For starters, nowhere does the Report state, in black and white, that Internet access is – or is now being considered – a human right.
What the Report does say, however, is that the Internet is a catalyst for the enjoyment of human rights, most notably, the right to freedom of expression. The salient points:
- There are two facets to the Internet. The first concerns access to online content, with only a few permitted restrictions. The second concerns the availability of the necessary infrastructure and ICTs to be able to access the Internet.
- The Internet has become ‘a key means’ by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as stated in Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- The Special Rapporteur confirms that Art. 19 ‘was drafted with foresight to include and to accommodate future technological developments through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of expression’.
- The right to freedom of opinion and expression is not only a fundamental right of its own accord but is also ‘an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights’, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly’.
- By acting as ‘a catalyst’ for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realisation of other human rights.
- All states, therefore, have a positive obligation ‘to promote or to facilitate’ [note the words used] the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise right, which therefore includes the Internet, by adopting ‘effective and concrete policies and strategies… to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all.’
- The Report also states that ‘the Internet, as a medium by which the right to freedom of expression can be exercised, can only serve its purpose if States assume their commitment to develop effective policies to attain universal access to the Internet.’ And ‘given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights… ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States’ [note: ‘a priority’].
Therefore, the fact that the Special Rapporteur confirms that Art.19 includes the Internet as a medium through which we can enjoy freedom of expression does mean, in practice, that any restrictions (except those provided by law and are necessary) constitute a violation of such freedoms.
However, we must be careful not to automatically extend the term ‘a key means’ or ‘a catalyst’ to mean that Internet access is now a human right. Whether it should be declared a human right, or whether it’s premature, keeping in mind the state of affairs in developing countries, for example, is another issue. (‘The Special Rapporteur is acutely aware that universal access to the Internet for all individuals worldwide cannot be achieved instantly.’)
Rather, one must give weight and special consideration to the call made by the Special Rapporteur onto every state, to ensure that universal access to the Internet is given priority.
The Report refers to particular events that have prompted a more focused discussion on human rights and Internet access. However, the strong call made by the Special Rapporteur serves as a wake-up call for every country, whether developed or developing. The added value of this Report, in fact, is that it refers to all states in general: whether Internet penetration is still low due to the lack of technological availability, slower Internet connections, and higher costs of Internet access, or whether the infrastructure has been developed but marginalised groups are still struggling to overcome access barriers.