I have firmly argued in the past that the internet should be considered a civil right, and that every effort should be made to get as many people access to the internet as possible. Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google, disagrees:
[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, 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.
On the surface, his argument looks compelling -- and, certainly, having heard it, I am a little more hesitant to declare that the internet itself should be considered a human right.
But I do think that what he's suggesting here, that the internet, like a horse, is merely a means to an assured end, is insufficient. We wouldn't be justified in arguing that, if you were to deny anyone today access to the internet, you would not have damaged their freedom of communication as long as they could still pass messages along by mail.
He brings up, too, that there's a better case for the internet as a civil right, rather than a human right:
The same reasoning above can be applied here — Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important — though the argument that it is a civil right is, I concede, a stronger one than that it is a human right. Civil rights, after all, are different from human rights because they are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.
While the United States has never decreed that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, we have come close to this with the notion of “universal service” — the idea that telephone service (and electricity, and now broadband Internet) must be available even in the most remote regions of the country. When we accept this idea, we are edging into the idea of Internet access as a civil right, because ensuring access is a policy made by the government.
Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights.
He goes on to conclude,
Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.
I think he's missing a significant way in which the internet could be considered a necessary right -- it follows the same lines of his argument, that in looking for rights, we're looking for what it is we're trying to ensure.
People have a human right to access to the present state of technology. I think that the internet is a human right not as a fact unto itself, but as a necessary conclusion of the premise that people have a right to access the technology that the world has available.
In this sense, the internet isn't just guaranteed because it's a useful tool -- it's guaranteed, or should be guaranteed, because it represents the fact of the state of human progress. Just like it's atrocious that people don't have access to the medicine that is easy to manufacture, it's atrocious that people don't have access to the information that's easy to transmit, and the forums that are easy to create and maintain.