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.