Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is the 'Freedom to Connect' a Right?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2010:
"...we must find ways to make human rights a reality. Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century... The final freedom, one that was probably inherent in what both President and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about and wrote about [the "Four Freedoms"]: the freedom to connect -- the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate."
PJ Crowley, State Department Spokesperson, January 26, 2011:
"We want to make sure that Egypt is not interfering with the use of social media. That's a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square."
President Barack Obama, January 27, 2011:
" are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that I think is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, January 28, 2011:
“It is [the White House’s] strong belief that inside of the framework of basic individual rights, are the rights of those to have access to the internet and to sites for open communication and social network.”
The power of unfettered Internet access and social network is playing out in the blossoming of freedom movements worldwide -- especially during the 2009 protests in Iran, and in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.

But the power of the Internet cuts both ways. The technology that fuels democracy movements worldwide can also be turned against them as a tool of repression:

  1. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned off the Internet as soon as it became clear that millions were using the network to organize and speak out against his regime. Earlier, authorities in Nepal and Burma had attempted the same.

  2. China recently and successfully deployed technology to stifle expressions of support for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo among bloggers and users of social media in their country.

  3. Iran had blocked Twitter and Facebook sites and restricted cellphone access just before its June 2009 presidential election. It then used Deep Packet Inspection technology to spy on cyber-dissidents and even track them down.

  4. North American and European countries are freely selling technology to repressive regimes that allows them to spy on their citizens, cut off their communications and even locate them for arrest; and the list goes on.
Whether Internet access should be a basic human right has been debated among open Internet wonks and advocates for some time now. But we're only now seeing this rhetoric being repeated at the highest levels of U.S. government.

One thing is now beyond debate. The open exchange of information via Internet networks is having a positive impact for freedom movements worldwide. "This is both a practical and ethical belief," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote in the wake of the Egyptian protests.

Let's focus on the practical side. If American leaders agree that Internet access should be a basic human right, what now must we do make that a meaningful reality?

Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." But do non-binding declarations go far enough?

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