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Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

Gordon Kelly



Air, water, free speech, Angry Birds… there are many things over the years we have come to see as basic human rights. According to the United Nations this week we should all start getting used to another, perhaps more surprising one, Internet access.

"Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states," said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations. La Rue wrote the report "on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression."


He explained that "the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies." He added that "the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights."

Why write this report now? La Rue noted that the Internet has existed since the 1960s, but said its evolution was such that today there is "incorporation into virtually every aspect of modern human life".

Is La Rue right? On the growth of the Internet he certainly has a point. He explains that "According to the International Telecommunication Union, the total number of Internet users worldwide is now over 2 billion" and you only have to look at the rise of Facebook from 50,000 users in August 2008 to nearly 700m in June 2011 to see how our digital life is skyrocketing. Every aspect of what we do, from shopping and travel to communication and learning is fundamentally underpinned by the Internet.


There is also momentum for La Rue's core argument. Back in July 2010 forward thinking Finland declared broadband a legal right and said every Finn will be guaranteed a 1Mbit connection by law. Admittedly for a country with a population of just 5.5m, where the government has vowed 100Mbit broadband for all by 2015 and 96 per cent are already online this is a fairly incremental step. So what about the rest of us?

In March 2010 a BBC World Service poll of 27,000 people around the world found four in five people believed Internet Access to be a fundamental right. It concluded "the internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created" and governments must "regard the Internet as basic infrastructure - just like roads, waste and water".


The problem is for all its support, this infrastructure is grossly unequal. In the UK just this week Virgin Media announced 4m homes (a fraction of the population) now have access to 100Mbit broadband yet the nation's average speed remains little more than 4Mbit. Rural customers fare even worse averaging closer to 3Mbit and residents of some villages would dream of achieving even that. In a time of ever more streaming media, HD video and Cloud computing this isn't good enough. Human right or not, if high quality Internet access isn't widely available there are risks internationally of falling behind as a nation.

Daniel Gerson

June 13, 2011, 9:01 pm

"but it is arguably a powerful and well meaning step in the right direction"??

I can't think of a more misguided statement of intent!

Let's make it clear, this isn't a technological argument, it's an economic one.

La Rue clearly has no idea of the "Tragedy of the Commons" (look up Stossel's show on this topic on youtube). When you make something a public good, the quality goes down!
That's true of public housing. That's true of NHS medical care (look at life expectancies of terminal cancer.) That's true of education.

Everybody sees something their neighbour has nowadays and considers it 'a right'.

This argument goes hand in hand with similar arguments in favour of Internet Neutrality laws. This is regulation that we don't need that stifles innovation. Are we really saying that youtube bandwidth has to be given the same priority as over-the-wire live remote surgery? Or that companies can't innovate their pricing models to subsidize some kinds of bandwidth if you buy a particular phone?

What legislation that La Rue is proposing inevitably takes the form of mandating tons of fibre to be laid down to ppl living remotely at the expense of those who choose to live in cities. And further, it becomes impossible to repeal this legislation when a better tech than fibre comes along, because the fibre laying companies get into bed with government. That's the same reason why there are farmer subsidies in EU and America today! Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are a result of legislation from the Great Depression!(farming in the states too).

La Rue needs THE LAWS OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES smashed into his brain!


June 14, 2011, 3:45 am

Banging the old rural/urban myth drum there I see. As TFA points out, most villages/outlying areas have relatively slow internet connections when compared to cities, even though the subscribers in those areas pay the same as those in cities. Who is subsidising who?

Besides which, if the article is correct in its assuption that internet usage is a basic human right, it puts it right up there with water, gas and electricity and you're not suggesting we don't bother heating people who live in rural communities are you?

The BBC is a public good, and I thank for the relative quality of that institutions making. Most recently of course, leading the rest of the world with its excellent streaming service.

In fact your arguments are like Swiss cheese, public housing is much better than it ever was.

Just pay the extra 50p already!


June 14, 2011, 4:00 am

Your entitled to your opinion, but I would suggest seeing this in a negative light and favouring a move away from Net Neutrality makes it a minority one.

The consequences for national laws from country to country will be extremely interesting and a connected planet is without doubt a positive, if idealistic, path to pursue. To see any praise for this as misguided is remarkably cynical and I personally believe over time you will be proved wrong.

Interesting to hear to see the flip side of the coin though.


June 14, 2011, 2:57 pm

How can a material good be a human right? Ridiculous!

Daniel Gerson

June 14, 2011, 4:22 pm

Let me qualify...

When you make something a public good... the quality goes down ON AVERAGE! Sure you can cite an organization like the BBC, but you'd be hard pressed to prove that the private sector (National Geographic, Discover, other news channels) etc couldn't do equally as good a job. AND if they fail, the tax payer doesn't take up the burden. What happens if you don't like the BBC coverage? You have to pay for it anyways in Britain! I can cite other examples of Government sponsorship that's been decent. NASA, The Waterfront in Cape Town, The Israeli subsidies to their tech industry.

BUT... When the private sector invests, they tend to make around 10% return if you look at returns over the last 100 years. When Governments (Western) invest they tend to make 0.9 cents on the dollar. A loss! Obviously 3rd world governments are much worse.

Should we promote Government interference simply because there are CASES of them doing a good job? Or on their overall track record?

Your suggestion that people in rural areas are subsidizing people in cities is ludicrous! Of course they're going to pay the same for a lower quality of service (Or put another way, pay more for the same service). That's because they have less economies of scale, and more infrastructure cost to support. If I have to install a hub for 100 people vs a hub for 1000 people, you're damn right I'll charge the 100 people more.
But like most, you're falling into the trap of only going on the SEEN costs vs the UNSEEN costs. You see what people are being charged. You don't see the costs of the infrastructure. You should read Frédéric Bastiat (Wikipedia).

Daniel Gerson

June 14, 2011, 5:09 pm


Thanx for your reply. I acknowledge my views are a minority one. But a majority of people and policy makers view the minimum wage as essential in increasing the livelihood of the poor. HOWEVER a majority of economists view the minimum wage as legislation that increases unemployment and hurts the poor. Intellectually, who's arguments do you buy? The popular one? Or the one based on modelling supply and demand? Communism was overwhelmingly popular too...initially.

I have a background in computer science, and have worked in banking and the film industry... I don't tend to see technology as a 'special' commodity. Algorithms aren't magic, no matter how complex. It's a commodity like any other, and it's privy to the supply and demand and multiplier forces in the economy like any other.

I don't even disagree that things are headed in the direction mentioned... only that the results will be poorer. Jefferson famously said "It is the natural process of things for Government's to gain, and Liberty to yield". Legislators will legislate, for xxxxxx or poorer.

But I'm intrigued that you haven't yet considered the other side of the coin... until my comments. Permit me to direct you to some great youtube viewing to indicate, that I'm not a lonely voice on the Internet.

If you will induldge me, take a look at (Internet neutrality):

And more stossel on other kinds of licensing:

And here's an episode on Tragedy of the Commons:

Apologies for it's USA-centric viewpoints, but there is very little international media... especially in Europe voicing the economics of Milton Friedman.

Best Regards


June 14, 2011, 11:03 pm

considering the finland comment,it maybe only a small population but in regards to landmass its bigger than uk.

our island is tiny compared to the population and so should have one of the better internet services,imagine trying to wire up usa or russia.

i do agree 2MB should be the minimum at least then people can stream.


June 15, 2011, 5:08 am

although lets face it a basic human right dosent mean it has to be provided just not denied,is it just me that finds dmg using the service he says shouldnt be open for everyone and then probably throws a wobbler if he cant connect within 90 seconds.

Daniel Gerson

June 15, 2011, 2:44 pm

I'm not saying at all that something like the internet should be DENIED to people who are prepared to pay for it. And if you pay for it you're entitled to complain about your service, and threaten your provider that you will switch. I'm against person A (lobbyists & government) taxing person B to provide services for persons C.

Daniel Gerson

June 15, 2011, 2:57 pm

Let me just qualify that last reply to you and say that: Taxes are only justified when you've correctly identified a market failure AND shown that your Government interventionist policy IS ACTUALLY going to make things better.

In this case, the BEST incentive to wanting and providing good internet access by companies to the masses, is when you see your friends having a better Internet access than you have, and them reaping the benefits of that.

London never got good restaurants (and there weren't any in the 70s) by mandating that everyone have access to fine dining 3 days per week. The results of such legislation would stifle the food industry in the UK, the same goes for the Internet.


June 15, 2011, 8:25 pm

DMG, you're comparing apples to oranges. Fine dining in London is a luxury and not a necessity. Internet access is fast becoming a necessity.
The argument isn't one about speed or quality of service even, it's about having access to a necessary resource.

Daniel Gerson

June 16, 2011, 3:43 pm

I concede that fine dining would be considered by the majority as a luxury, and the internet as a necessity. But that's not the point.

The point is about the effectiveness of proposed legislation. If we believed that the quality of a good would go up (luxury or necessity) by taxing the public to provide it, then we should be using this argument everywhere!

Maybe supermarkets that deliver basic food items to the poor (at the cheapest rates) should be considered a public good. Countries that have taken this approach have yielded inferior results to countries that have a free market in food prices.

So the question is not whether you consider a good a luxury or a necessity. The question is whether making it public (beurocrats and lobbyists, taxing everybody, to provide services for everybody), will yield superior results. When you acknowledge that the track record is very poor (I'm not saying there have never been successes), then it is a poor approach ESPECIALLY when a good is a necessity.

Daniel Gerson

June 16, 2011, 3:53 pm

And here's something to address the Scandinavian role model, that so many are intent on copying. Welfare distribution works better when the people are homogeneous. Trying to copy Sweden or Finland in countries with very diverse populations.... just doesn't work.


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