Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Rights of Man at 1Mbps

Near the intersection of Parliament and Gerrard, Randy McDonald pointed me to a bit of news the other day that, I'll admit, struck me as faintly ludicrous at the time - Finland, one of the few nations ever successful at beating back the Russians, has apparently decided that broadband internet is a human right. This strikes me as particularly relevant now, as right now I'm looking down the barrel of an ISP changeover that will temporarily leave me without home internet access. At first I thought it was odd because, really - when I think of fundamental human rights, I think of things that are necessary for life. Access to food, water, shelter, that sort of thing. The internet has only been around for forty years - assuming you count ARPANET - and there are still a vast many people who have never been able to use it. One might think that states would best focus on more immediate concerns.

So cold...

But that's a pretty hollow dismissal of something that, realistically, is of fundamental importance to 21st century society. Limiting the scope of fundamental human rights to the things that are biologically required for survival isn't magnanimous. It's the ground state, the absolute lowest that things should go. We built civilizations to go beyond that. Sure, there are those who would argue that internet access is a luxury, that it's not necessary to live one's life - but then liberty, justice, free speech, and all that aren't strictly necessary either. People don't die in dictatorships because they can't say what they want, though people frequently do because they say it regardless. We've long since established the precedent that social inventions are equally valid human rights.

Besides, internet access is becoming more and more necessary to day-to-day life, in its capacity as a means to connect individuals and communities. If you think it's a frippery, how willing would you be to try living without electricity? Our ancestors managed just fine without it for hundreds of thousands of years, but look at the nature of their lives. The internet, in addition to being the sine qua non for ninja cat videos, is in my opinion a revolution on the order of writing. Throughout human history, the societies that have advanced are those that were open and those that communicated widely. The internet enables that to a greater degree than anything we've ever done before.

Beyond that, there's a strictly utilitarian reason why this sort of recognition should press on beyond just Finland. Governments, as I've written before, constantly seek greater and greater control of the people, and the current controversy about internet-enabled copyright infringement is giving them an excuse to exercise it. Three strikes laws such as the French HADOPI law provide an avenue for internet users to be disconnected and blacklisted after three accusations of copyright infringement. Laws such as these are tailor-made for abuse by governments - if they want to silence a person, they can simply accuse them of torrenting a few first-run movies and let the wheels turn.

The enshrinement of broadband internet access as a fundamental human right would be a step in the right direction, I think, to tying the bastards' hands behind their backs. The specification of broadband is, I think, particularly important. If it was just "internet access" as a human right, that's something that could easily be warped. "Sure," says the government, "of course you're entitled to internet access. Enjoy your 300-baud modem."

The internet is more than a meme factory, and to deny people access to it is equivalent to denying them literacy.

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