Vint Cerf is warning that people who insist that the internet is some sort of human or civil right are missing the point.
In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Cerf – regarded by many as one of the fathers of the internet for his role in creating TCP/IP – explained that technology isn’t a human right in itself, but merely an enabler for more concrete things such as communication. He criticized the UN and others for taking the position that broadband communications is a human right, saying that we should instead focus on more fundamental problems.
“Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself,” he writes. “There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.”
It might be argued that internet access was a civil right, since it is something that people look to governments to provide as a matter of course. But even this argument is shaky, he warns. Instead we should look not to the technology, but to the technology industry, to protect human rights, and it is up to engineers to ensure universal, safe internet access.
“Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection – without pretending that access itself is such a right,” he concludes.
Cerf, whose current day job is being an internet evangelist for Google, may well have a point. But based on current evidence, there’s a mixed record from the technology industry thus far, not least from Silicon Valley itself.
Google, along with Yahoo and Microsoft, had no problem censoring search results when asked to by the Chinese government (although Cerf’s employers later changed their minds), and there are more than a few Chinese citizens in brutal jails and work camps because their Western ISP fingered them to the thought police.
On the architecture side of things, Cisco and others have been happy to sell tools to repressive regimes, and even, according to some accusations, build systems that are specifically designed to target oppressed groups. Investigation firms are happy to offer similar systems here in the US, as well.
From a technical perspective, El Reg suspects that Cerf has it right: the internet is no more a human right than a road or telephone. But looking to a relatively amoral industry like technology to act as a human rights guardian is asking for trouble. ®