Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Broadband as a Human Right (updated)

One year ago Finland passed a law declaring access to a broadband Internet connection to be a legal right. What does that mean? There’s a discussion of this over on Red Alert, after Jonathon Penney delivered a really interesting talk at Victoria University entitled “Open Connectivity, Open Data”.

Incidentally, it’s really good to see a major political party actually trying to develop policy in the open on the Internet. I’d love to see them both doing it. Where are you, National?

I wrote a comment on the Red Alert blog trying to explain what I think statements like “Broadband is a Human Right” mean. Here’s an expanded and tidied up version.

Human rights are in some sense a legal fiction since there is nothing in physics or evolution which guarantees them. Rather, they are a way of agreeing a minimum set of standards to dealing with each. So arguments like “show me where Einstein, the Bible or the US Constitution says this” simply don’t address the issue.

However, human rights have shown themselves to be a good way of thinking about how we relate to each other. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (commonly thought to have been drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt) was put together in the late 40s while the world was still reflecting on the treatment of the Jews and other minority groups in Nazi Germany. (Subsequently Stalin and Mao also treated whole classes of people like this, but their nations did not sign up to the notion of human rights.) Setting human rights as a basic standard of treatment of individuals provides a benchmark by which people can measure their governments.

There is an argument that says agreeing to human rights such as freedom from unjust imprisonment is qualitatively different to saying that access to a good or service like food or broadband is also a human right. We can agree that killing people is wrong, but to some it’s a further step to say that you should feed someone who would otherwise starve.

My perspective on this is that human rights are part of the way which we mutually agree to treat each other. I don’t think it would be acceptable for people to starve or freeze to death for lack of food or shelter and I’m happy to give up a proportion of my resources to ensure that. The actual job of distributing those resources is outsourced to the state. So, to me, extending the language of human rights to the basic necessities of life is entirely appropriate.

The question we are now facing is whether access to broadband can be seen as a human right. You can certainly argue that people should have the right to participate in society and the the economy, and I can cheerfully assert that broadband will soon be essential for those things if it isn’t already. So, the question is whether participation in society and the economy is a human right.

It seems to me that these things are real human rights. We are social creatures who can’t survive without the assistance of others. Cooperation is a major distinction between us and animals. If you accept this, then refusing to guarantee access to the tools required to participate is effectively condemning some people to lives of isolation and alienation.

This is nothing to do with whether services that we think should be human rights are provided by the state or by the private sector. And it doesn’t compel providers to serve any given individual. What it does is provides a spur to government to ensure that everyone gets access. Whether government deals with that through regulation, subsidy or direct provision is up to it.

To sum up: I think there is a real case for regarding broadband access as a human right. I’m delighted to see Finland – a country with a great many similarities to New Zealand – legislating for this. Will New Zealand follow suit?

UPDATE: Lawyer and smart person Guy Burgess wrote about Internet as a human right last month. And Juha Saarinen, who speaks Finnish (of course), has commented on what the Finnish government is really doing.

posted by colin at 2:32 pm  


  1. I’m NOT disagreeing with the premise. You make a good case, but I’m still not entirely sure what it means.

    And, all the arguments made here could apply just as equally to the telephone – and yet I don’t see anyone suggesting the phone should be a human right.

    Or am I missing something?

    Comment by Bill Bennett — 6 July 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  2. Fair call, Bill. But you do hear people – or I used to – saying that they stood for the billion people who would never place a phone call. I don’t know if we are so sure, now, they won’t place that call.

    And also I glossed over Finland using the term “legal right” rather than “human right”. Presumably there’s a difference in Finnish – perhaps Juha could advise.

    The Internet has nearly digested the phone system, so I’m not sure that we can sensibly draw an analogy with it. Power, perhaps, is a better parallel. We *do* allow suppliers to cut off people’s power for non-payment, but government does not require it to be cut off for any policy reason, for instance if someone was using it to grow dope. And even the cut-off for non-payment is under pressure after the tragic case in Auckland last year where a cut-off appeared to contribute to someone’s death.

    It would be interesting to know what Finland’s policy is with respect to phone and power service. Does government intervene to ensure they are supplied to all?

    Comment by colin — 6 July 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  3. I was mumbling something about this on the Red Alert blog too. The point I was trying to make is that in some senses calling something a “right” can be quite misleading. It tends to conjure up, rights like the right to life, freedom of speech etc. Right such as those are almost inalienable; not quite, but almost. Contrast that with the type of right we are talking about here. A benefit which is far more open to being circumscribed – perhaps because it is not really a right at all but rather, a utility.

    Comment by Rick Shera — 6 July 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  4. I would agree with Juha’s points. There is nothing luxurious in internet access in Finland, no matter how fast it is. It is just a basic means of accessing services in a coutry that has an average population density of some 15 people per square kilometre. If one counts out the main metropolitan areas and looks at vast Northern and Eastern parts of Finland, average population density would drop to less than 2 people per square kilometre. Basic calculation on cost of servicese produced show that internet is the only logical option when the type of service produced allows it; elections, pension related services, dealiong with government agencies… And the need to access services is in no way limited to public services. It is next to impossible to handle ones banking business, traveling, finding a house etc with out access to high speed connection.

    As internet will have an ever increasing role in accessing public services, it is just logical that people are quaranteed basic means of accessing them. And it is better to catch the train when it’s moving “slowly”, in a few years time it will be ever more difficult to close the gap.

    One of the main principals behing the legistlation is that people are all equal and have equal right to access services. Very fast internet connections have been available for years everywhere else but the more remote locations. It is these relote locations that are being served with the new legistlation. Connections them selves have been very affordable for everyone but the poorest. In major cities 2Mb-10Mb inbound connection prices start from as low as 9.90eur (20 NZ$) per month with unlimited data volume.

    To have an access to high speed internet is not the same as subsribing to the service. It will just be there available to buy for anyone. The act states that “everyone will have access to at least 1Mb connection AT REASONABLE PRICE AND DELIVERY TIME. Operators can no longer price the service differentially for remote locations or avoid delivering the service by expected 5 month wait for service to be turned on. Every area in Finland will have an responsible operator assigned to meet the requirements stated in the act (26 operators in total). If there will be an impact on pricing of broadband connections, it will likely be towards increasing the current price level. Reasonable price for broadband connections is likely to settle somewhere around 60-80 NZ$ per month and this is not likely to cover cost for enabling the service for these remote locations. Cost will be cover from somewhere else.

    There will also be government support for some areas like Lapland and some investments will be tax deductable for citizens.

    To me the question is not as much of how access will be provided to everyone. As already more than 96% of people in Finland have access to the service available (generally 24-100Mb or faster in cities) this all comes down to reaching the “last few.” But for sure, the acting government will take all the good publicity out of this act. And seems to be doing well in that :)

    Government does not intervene with agreements between suppliers and customers. Water supply and electricity can be turned off after 5 weeks of missed payments. Telefone operators can turn off the service at any time agreed on the agreement between them and the customer. Again, the service is there and available eventhough turned off. There are public organizations that one can turn to for unreasobnable conditions and appeal.

    Comment by Janne — 20 July 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  5. Thanks, Janne. So, what Finland is doing is ensuring that everyone has access to the broadband service at a fair price, and this is particularly an issue for the rural users.

    So, in terms of rights, we could say that in Finland there is a legal right to broadband at a fair price regardless of your location.

    New Zealand has its share of rural and remote users as well. The same principles should apply – our rural people are no less citizens than the townies. To be fair, there is at least one “rural broadband” program. But it’s not couched in terms of a right, it’s more that we’ll throw some money and see how far it goes.

    I hope our government recognises the rights or its rural citizens as Finland has done.

    Comment by colin — 20 July 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  6. Well said. For me, giving access to each citizen to internet services at a fair price is a great idea. I’m just not sure if that’s big enough to belong to the human rights list.

    Comment by Karen Cayamanda — 19 August 2010 @ 3:55 pm

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