Is Web Access a Basic Human Right?

by Jeff Wiener on December 16, 2014

The Internet is “less open” and “more unequal” than ever before, according to a report from the World Wide Web Foundation, with its annual web index suggesting that Internet users are at ever-increasing risk of online surveillance from the government, as laws to restrict such mass intrusions are weak or non-existent in 84% of countries, with an added 38% of countries denying free Internet use to citizens.

This damning report has spurred Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web and founder of the Foundation, to call for radical systemic change in how the Internet is delivered to the people of the world, going as far as to argue that web access should be considered a basic human right.

Born not as a CIA surveillance project (as Russian President Vladimir Putin recently asserted) but as a means of bringing together the academic world, the foundation of the Internet is the free and open expression and exchange of ideas. What it has become, Berners-Lee laments, is something quite different, a tool for Big Brother, and this has to change.

“It’s time to recognize the Internet as a basic human right,” Berners-Lee said in a statement. “That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring Internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of Web users regardless of where they live.”

With privacy scandals plaguing the connected world and a woeful 4.4 billion people still without Internet connection, I think there’s little argument that the Internet is a pale shadow of what it could be, a tool used to combat inequality by giving the entire world access to education, information, and communication.

“The richer and better educated people are, the more benefit they are gaining from the digital revolution,” said Anne Jellema, chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, and the lead author of the report.

“Extreme disparities between rich and poor have been rightly identified as the defining challenge of our age, and we need to use technology to fight inequality, not increase it.”

What the Internet is currently, woefully so, is a tool for the wealthy, a tool for profits, and a tool for government intrusion and control, with seemingly little thought being given to the intrinsic value this technology plays in the advancement of the human race.

As the results of the web index show, almost 40 percent of the countries surveyed were found to be blocking sensitive online content to a “moderate or extreme degree,” and half of all web users live in places where they face severe restrictions to their online rights.

Of course the concern regarding unfettered Internet access is that the web serves as a breeding ground for extremist terrorism and religious fanaticism, both, Berners-Lee notes, are not the fault of the Internet per se, and aren’t rooted out through imposing restrictions anyway.

”When you look at the Web you see humanity connected. Humanity has got some wonderful parts and some gruesome parts. You can’t design an Internet that will suddenly turn everybody into saints. What you can do is design an Internet that is open,” Berners-Lee said.

So what do you think, should Internet access be considered a basic human right?

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