What's the News: Disconnecting people from the Internet or unduly restricting the flow of information online is a violation of human rights and goes against international law, according to a United Nations report (pdf) released Friday. The report, written by UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue, highlights "the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole," its summary says. Furthermore, the report specifies two dimensions of Internet acces: unrestricted access to online content and the availability of sufficient technology and infrastructure "to access the Internet in the first place." What's the Context:
The report follows in the wake of---and specifically takes to task---laws passed last year in France and the United Kingdom, which allow these countries to cut off Internet access of people illegally sharing files.
Several countries have severely limited Internet access during the recent political unrest in the Middle East. Egypt shut down nearly all Internet access in the country in January shortly after the revolution there began, and Internet service in Bahrain slowed in February as protests spread, likely due to government restrictions. As Wired's Threat Level notes, two-thirds of Syria's Internet access went dark the same day the UN report was released, as unrest there escalated.
This report is not the first to recognize Internet access as a human right. Estonia, Finland, Costa Rica and---in a strange contradiction---France have all passed laws or declarations to that effect. Nearly four-fifths of adults from 26 countries in a recent BBC poll agreed that access to the Internet is a fundamental right.
What Does It Mean:
It's not yet clear to what extent, much less how, the UN will defend Internet access as a human right. The report "underlines the applicability of international human rights norms and standards on the right to freedom of opinion and expression to the Internet as a communication medium," suggesting that disconnecting people from the Internet could be treated just like other human rights violations.
Making sure everyone can get online won't be easy, as the report readily admits. "Given that access to basic commodities such as electricity remains difficult in many developing States," it says, "the Special Rapporteur is acutely aware that universal access to the Internet for all individuals worldwide cannot be achieved instantly."
The report outlines general steps to ensure this right is protected, saying, "States should adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies---developed in consultation with individuals from all segments of society, including the private sector as well as relevant Government ministries---to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all." Given this is a general, non-binding report, just what those strategies and policies should be, and who will assure they're implemented, remains to be decided.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / United Nations