March 10th, 2010

The “All Access” Pass

Cartoon

Cartoon from "Under the Jacaranda Tree"

According to the results of a recent survey by BBC World Service, 4 out 5 adults around the world believe that having access to the Internet is a “fundamental right.” I completely agree. I’ve written before about the Internet as a public utility, and I consider equal access one of the cornerstones to a modern world where opportunities and resources are spread out for the masses rather than coveted by a few. However, when people talk about Internet access, they can be talking about (at least) two different things. “Access” can refer to the ability to go online, in a strictly technical context, or it can be related to censorship. The technical side of Internet access is doable–it is a tall order, but doable. For example, satellite technology has allowed countries lacking land telephone lines to move on to cell phones. But censorship is an entirely different issue, and one which is key to the question of access. After all, if someone can only view websites which are in line with one agenda, can they really be said to have access? If having access, in all senses of the word, is a “fundamental right,” shouldn’t all people worldwide have the unfettered chance to view whatever they want online?

Like free speech in general, this can be a fuzzy area. I think most of us can agree that child pornography and bomb-making instructions do not really need to be available, but in principle those websites should be allowed to operate freely. As always, drawing the line is hard. Here in the US, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently reaffirmed the American government’s commitment to protecting free speech online around the world. However, both the United States and, by way of another example in the Western Francehave taken steps towards a porn-free Internet. So who are we to condemn other countries for taking action against items which fall under their definition of obscene? (For a quick rundown of other instances of ‘net censorship around the world, see this 2002 articleby Adam Thierer of the Cato Institute.)

When it comes to global policy, one might turn to the United Nations for guidance. Secretary Clinton mentioned in her speech that Internet freedoms are included in a resolution to the UN Human Rights Council. However, the United Nations track record regarding foreign policy and Internet censorship is no clearer than the United States. In November of 2009, the UN held a forum on Internet governance in Egypt, but UN officials demanded that an anti-censorship group remove a poster shaming China for its firewalls–effectively censoring their own anti-censorship conference. In January of 2009, a resolution crafted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference was presented to the UN General Assembly, which asked all other UN member nations to ban the “defamation” of religion (though it was opposed by many nations, it was ultimately adopted). A resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in April of 2008 was criticized by other human rights groups for its perceived emphasis on limiting free speech rather than protecting it.

Throughout the world, what one person thinks is freedom might be someone else’s idea of destruction. Bringing Internet access to more homes and communities around the world is a good thing, but with that, we will eventually have to figure out how we can get along and share a planet of readily-accessible resources and ideas. Until and unless this is addressed, we’re not living with true Internet access.

–Emily Long

This entry can also be found on IFC’s Make Media Matter blog, where I am a regular contributor.

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