The 2010 IGF Survey: 
  Is Internet access a fundamental human right? 

Researchers from the Imagining the Internet Center conducted a video survey of Global IGF 2010 participants, recording interviews with more than 60 stakeholders from all sectors of society about the evolution of the Internet. Use the video viewer at right to see answers to the question "Is Internet access a fundamental human right?"


Links to 2010 questions: 
>Q1: Cloud computing
>Q2: The mobile Internet
>Q3: Human right?
>Q4: Influence of intermediaries
>Q5: Influence of the IGF
>Q6: Greatest hope for the Internet
>Q7: Greatest fear for the Internet
>Q8: Future in 10 seconds

To get an accurate representation of all responses in full, watch all of the videos. Each clip is brief, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Some respondents gave extended answers; some may be edited for brevity if necessary but the majority should include the full response.

Most of the people surveyed noted that the open discussions conducted at IGF are important because people can speak freely about the challenges and opportunities of the Internet.

Print transcript of the comments made in the video on this page:

Salanieta Tamanikaiwaimaro, Fiji Telecommunications: “I would ask is communications a human right? The Internet, it depends on what you define as the Internet. Is it infrastructure, or is it the passage of voice and traffic through the infrastructure?”

Maya Ganesh, independent researcher, Bombay, India: “I think access to the Internet can facilitate a lot of rights. I think a question like that tends to polarize the discussion around rights. I think it is important to discuss human rights when you’re discussing access to the Internet but I don’t think access to it is a fundamental human right. We already have lots of fundamental human rights that are fine the way they are and the Internet is one of those things that allows those things to be, sort of, realized.”

Ambrose Ruyooka, Ministry of ICT in Uganda: Well, I don’t know what you mean by “fundamental,” but it will be necessary for an individual to have access to the Internet. From the discussions we are having here we know the Internet can help us achieve the Millennium Development Goals. I think it’s incumbent upon people who manage the Internet, governments to assure citizens have access to the Internet. I wouldn’t say it’s a fundamental human right – it depends on how you look at it – but then people deserve to have access when they want to. It is the obligation of governments and civil society and all the stakeholders to make sure that we have it available.

Alejandro Pisanty, longtime leader in the Internet Society, ICANN, IGF, National University of Mexico: This is being discussed broadly; it has to be discussed in depth. The academic approach – we wouldn’t have to go to the academic approach – is in my mind inconclusive. The best conclusion I have gathered from experts is that the access to the Internet may or may not be recognized as a fundamental right but it certainly has become an essential tool, an essential prerequisite for people to have access to all other recognized human rights.

You can’t think of people having a real approach to exerting their rights to education, to free speech, or to access of information or to health, family life, free human development, without access to the Internet in an equal way. There still are people who are free, who are fit, who are in good health but they’re not equal to those who are connected to the Internet.

Declaring the Internet or access to the Internet as a right in a country, or in a city, or in any jurisdiction, or globally, requires a lot of considerations. You have to consider whether it is a positive or a negative right, whether you consider it on a par – in the same generation of rights – as previous ones or whether it is a fourth-generation kind of right, and that comes together with an analysis that has to be done very carefully, which is: Who is responsible? Who has oversight, or who has a responsibility to deliver these rights?

When I say “oversight” I mean also, who denies this right? If this right is going to be like, “every citizen in this country is going to have access to the Internet,” then that right is to be guaranteed by the state, and it has to be guaranteed with a budget and with a policy that will say that some people will have Internet access for free, and then you will end up discussing issues equality and that brings in a lot of other rights.

So this is not to be done lightheartedly, but that also tells you that we can’t and shouldn’t hurry and declare Internet access as a right.

One more point being the details. If you define it as a universal service or a universal access requisite then we have a better definition and it can evolve before it crystallizes. But the most important point is: Do we recognize that people who do not have access to the Internet are not equally able to exert their other rights?

Andrew Mack, founder of AMGlobal Consulting, US: No, I don’t think that Internet access is a fundamental human right in the same way that I don’t think that getting access to a good newspaper is a fundamental human right. In the same way that I don’t believe that access to the BBC, or NBC News or CNN, or whatever is a fundamental right.

Rights, liberties these are things that I think are more fundamental than that. Do we want everybody to have access to the Internet? Sure. Do we want everybody to be able to use it in a safe and secure way? Absolutely. It is the kind of thing that will make the world better for most people, most places? I think the answer is yes, but once you declare it a right it takes on a completely different meaning in my mind. The Internet got built out by people, people investing with money, people working with contracts. This doesn’t happen from the vapor, so to the people who say that this Internet is a right I would just shoot back and say: by what divine right do we have the money to pay for it for everybody?

And you’re also talking about the question of equal access. There will never, because people start off in unequal situations, it is unlikely that everyone will always have equal access. And so going down the rights path I think is a bit of a red herring. I think it is a bit of a false choice. The better choice would be what can we do to provide better access to more people, more often, and, at least as importantly, to understand what is out there that might be a benefit to them.

Fernando Botelho, F123.org, Brazil: Human rights include the right to work, the right to have an education, the right for civil participation in society, and all of those activities, at least these days, depend completely or in a strong way, a partial way but strong way, on having good access to the Internet. So you cannot have the fundamental rights that everybody acknowledges without having Internet access. So yes, Internet access has become essential for your rights and therefore it has become one of the, let’s say, essential human rights.

Rafid Fatani, PhD student, University of Exeter, UK, from Saudi Arabia: I don’t think the Internet, essentially, is a human right. It is, most definitely a very important aspect of our life. It helps us develop economically, socially and politically and how we engage with all of these processes but I certainly would put it as a second role after, purely on the basis that, yes it does help us kind of become better citizens, shall I say, through the knowledge and what it can offer us, but I think it’s like having a human right to hold a mobile phone. Yes, it is easier to get in contact with someone with a mobile phone but likely anyone anywhere can get to a cyber café and get on the Internet so in that respect there are other ways to get on the Internet.

Hanane Boujemi, DiploFoundation, Malta: From the technical point of view I don’t see the answer to this question as a yes – as a human right, but from the activist point of view I think if you ask any activist and anyone who is involved heavily in the human rights side of ICTs they will definitely answer this question as a yes.

Now, what you see as a right belonging to a specific region is not what I see as a right. So it is quite, you know, quite a critical question. If you ask a person from Africa or from a region which is not represented equally online, which means people who do not have the same opportunities as an American person or a European person, they will definitely say yes. They will claim that access to the Internet is a right and should be a right, but they don’t know what it involves, providing access, from the technical point of view, in terms of finances, in terms of infrastructure, they just want to be wired. So yes from a development perspective, Internet access is a human right.

Patrice Lyons, senior legal counsel, Corporation for National Research Initiatives, US: Earlier this year the secretary of state of the United States, Hillary Clinton, actually gave a very important talk on freedom of expression and the Internet. Now the Internet, a lot of folks think and I saw one document here they were just treating it as a network, but the Internet is a global information system. So intrinsically the management of information and the freedom to express yourself, and also to remain silent to have privacy if you want, are very important components. So as a human rights factor, I think that’s a starting point.

But then again you have to take in also, the counterbalancing of interests. There have been some instances reported of bullying on the Internet, so if you have freedom of expression you could say, “well the bully has the right to be obnoxious.” Well, I think society has to look at it in a more reasonable way so that you can have a balancing of these things, but preeminent among those are those basic human rights.

Now there is another human right that people don’t often talk about. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they talk about the rights of authors, and I think there is a generation that is used to having things a little easier. They don’t want to pay. They don’t want to respect rights, and that bothers me. They really need to have a way to respect the individual rights of authors, and so that is a human right that I would champion in this context.

Jean-Jacques Subrenat, France, member of the ICANN Board of Directors: I am expressing only a personal view. I think that it’s an infrastructure so if you consider that the right to life, to water, to fundamental health, to fundamental education are rights in that sense, perhaps, the Internet can be considered as a human right, or the access to the Internet, however, it’s more complex than that. So I think it takes countries that are very advanced, for instance Northern Europe, in Finland for instance, access to the Internet was described recently, in law, as a human right, but worldwide that’s not the case yet. So I would consider that it is on the way to becoming, perhaps not exactly a right but a fundamental element of communication.

Per Darnell, manager of Nordic operations, .nuDOMAIN: We don’t know what the next generation of Internet or whatever it will be, but, yes, as the world is today I think it’s a human right and we should all put in a lot of effort to bring the whole world online.

Judy Okite, consultant for FOSSFA at the West African IGF: No it is not, unfortunately. The Internet we currently have in Kenya depends on how much money you have and where you are at.

Garland McCoy, founder of the Technology Policy Institute, US: Yes I think it is, I think it is something that should be a priority for governments and certainly there is a huge incentive for the corporate community that is here to continue to push out undersea cables and to continue to connect, for example, to East Africa, which we have just started. Fiber has just come into Kenya, and that’s building out, and that is where IGF is going to be next year. You’ll see that in action. Before that it was just this horrible kind of satellite for your Internet, just 1950s satellites. These things should have died 100 years ago sort of thing. They all just sort of terminate in Brussels. It was very inefficient. So I think it’s a human right, I think it is being built out, I think the price points are getting there, and yes, it should be [a human right], but I don’t think it should be something where you start looking at it like a utility because then you’ll inhibit the investment. I think the investment has to be very much a partnership, where governments work with the private sector to ensure the proper investments, competition, choice, these types of things. 

Peng Hwa Ang, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, Nanyang Technological University, and longtime Internet governance leader: There has been talk about whether it is. The thinking that I see right now is that it is not a fundamental human right. It is what you might call a thin right. It is a legal right, a right that is sort of a negative in the sense that it’s a right not to be excluded. You cannot be denied the right to get on, in other words, if you had the money to pay for it the company cannot deny you access. But it is not a fundamental human right in the sense of your traditional human rights.

Human rights – if you’re talking about from tradition – is protection from governments, from arbitrary laws, and the Internet, right now, is not at that stage. Our country is sort of moving there. But if, for example, I were to say you have a fundamental right to get to the Internet, what does that mean? Does that mean I must provide you with a computer? Provide I you with software? Must I provide you the ICT? Where does it end?

So right now it is not a fundamental right in the traditional sense but sort of a limited right that some countries have. It is not a human right in the sense of all countries having it, you know, freedom of expression, all countries have that. But Internet access has still not reached that level.

Lisa Horner, head of research and policy at Global Partners & Associates, UK: Freedom of expression is a human right, and it is a core human right. It is foundational in its support for a wide range of other human rights and values in the sense that the Internet brings unprecedented opportunities for freedom of expression in an expansive sense not only in the ability to express ourselves but also the ability to access a wide range of information and ideas and to receive it and to make ourselves heard in the public domain. So in that sense Internet access is a right and is pre-condition for the right of freedom of expression, which is enshrined in international law.

Yassine Charif, High Authority of Audiovisual Communications, Morocco: That’s obvious. It’s a human right in two aspects. First in accessibility. States have to give access to citizens. When the infrastructure of Internet is available, states have to guarantee the freedom of access, but with minimal rules to protect the other persons in society.

Dave Faulkner, director of Climate Associates, LTD, UK: You could argue that it’s a human right in the sense that it gives you freedom to information and freedom to express your views. So anyone who is without Internet has less resources available to them. So I would agree it is becoming a human right, but perhaps not at the top of the priority list.

Indre Sabaliunaite, intern for the European Parliament: That is one of the kind of weird things that’s being discussed especially at this IGF I’ve noticed like yesterday. And even in some of our booklets that we’ve been giving out we have this booklet on how the IGF is collaborating, or how the European Union is working for the IGF, and there, you know, promoting security but, like, freedom as well for the Internet. They’re expressing it as a human right, and it’s kind of funny at the same time, but it is a little serious. I think that it might take time for that to really, kind of, develop because it’s not, I mean it is a right, but it’s not as serious as something like freedom of speech, but, of course, it does represent freedom of speech so it’s complicated. But I think that in the future it will become a human right.

I think that the most important thing is providing Internet access for people because it is really important for both communicating with others, with relatives who are abroad or even with jobs or just for the market, but I do realize that some people, either in third world countries or older people, like even my grandparents they don’t have, they don’t need to use it at all, but I think that if they had access to it, if they were given the right to use it they would really figure it out, especially with communicating with family abroad and stuff like that.

Jyrki Kasvi, member of the Parliament in Finland representing the Green League: Definitely, because countries like Finland, and particularly in countries like Estonia, Sweden and South Korea more of both public and private services are accessible only through the web. So if you take the access away or if there is a certain part of your population that does not have access, they are not equally treated. So, for instance, that is why I am very much against this three strikes policy, which is discussed in many countries regarding copyright infringement because I think it is a very serious punishment. It is like putting you into virtual prison.

Nurani Nimpuno, policy professional with NetNod, Sweden, and advisor to the global IGF: I would put it in another way. I think the Internet today is a part of every national infrastructure. It’s like water; it’s like telephony, like energy and all of those things.

So while I’m not sure that I would define it as a human right, I would see it as an essential part of a country’s infrastructure and as such needs to be supported, needs to be funded, needs to be prioritized. Today I think the Internet is not only a tool for people to communicate, it is essentially an enabler. It supports other parts of the country’s infrastructure. So I would put it that way.

Juan Carlos Solines Moreno, Solines & Associates, Ecuador: It is, in the sense that through the Internet now we can be informed, we can be educated. And if basic rights like health and like education were considered as basic human rights, now access to information, access to new technologies through the Internet, particularly through broadband because it doesn’t help that much to have access only to the Internet if it is only with a very small bandwidth, so access to broadband is becoming a critical right for the population for access to health, to education, to information and government. So I think that it should be considered as a basic right.

Katherine Fialova, Association for Progressive Communication, Czech Republic: I think yes, it is definitely a human right because the Internet is now so critical in our everyday lives. So really not having access can be more and more of a discriminating factor for other people who do not have it. So in that sense I think it is a critical human right.

Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol and chief Internet evangelist for Google: I’ve heard that some countries in the world have passed legislation asserting that Internet is a human right. I find that it’s an odd formulation, it isn’t something that I would necessarily endorse, and I think the reason that I hesitate is not that I think that people shouldn’t have access to the net, of course they should, it’s just that the net is an artifact, and it may very well be that this artifact will be replaced with something else that will be even better.

And so to believe that something is so fundamental as a human right, and then to pick on a particular instance seems a little like an odd way of putting things. On the other hand, the fundamental human right to information, the human right to express oneself, the human right to assemble, to interact with people, well, that’s really fundamental. To the extent the Internet supports that, you could make the argument that the fundamental right is the one of expression, the one of access. The Internet is a facilitator. I’d be more comfortable with those formulations than focusing on a particular artifact.

Qusai al-Shatti, Kuwait Information Technology Society: I would put it at human rights with just a single issue, and that is privacy rights, which is equal. There are other issues like empowering women and gender equality, these are all issues: helping the helpless, countering poverty, countering epidemics, let’s say what happened with the H1N1 epidemic. So it’s unfair to say only for human rights. But it is a tool that has been used for almost every advocacy work around the world.

Andrey Scherbovich, Moscow State University Higher Economics: Yes, of course. I think that in the digital era the right to access information is as important as other basic fundamental human rights because no other human right could be realized without information accessibility.

Mindaugas Glodas, Microsoft country manager for Lithuania: I think it is a human right because if you think of how the Internet started back in the middle of the last century it started in the university, which is by its nature a very democratic environment. I mean, wealthy nations more and more really depend on the Internet and I think, unfortunately, in less wealthy nations access is still somewhat limited. And I feel that for successful global development, successful inclusion of the third-world countries, the less economically wealthy countries, this is an absolute necessity. If they don’t get access to the Internet all of the other good things will also be beyond their reach.

David McGuire, vice president of 436 Communications, US: I think the Internet is incredibly valuable to human development, and as we have more Internet I think we are more likely to have more freedom, and more discussion about freedom, more economic freedom, more upward mobility. I certainly believe in the virtue of, or the value of, expanding the Internet to as many people as possible in as many places as possible.

I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it a fundamental human right because I think you need to be careful about what you define as that because I think there are something like 2 billion or close to 2 billion people on the Internet and that means there are 4 billion or 3 billion – I’m not sure what the global population numbers are looking like today – who are not on the Internet, and does that mean that they’re denying billions of people around the world a fundamental human right because they don’t have access to the Internet yet? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question.

Valery Trufunau, International Humanitarian Economic Institute, Belarus: In the words of the French Revolution, “Freedom, equality and brotherhood.” It is very close in my mind to the human rights issues. What I mean in this statement is freedom to access the Internet, equality in getting the information and brotherhood of communication.

Carla Wetherell, youth IGF representative from the UK: It is becoming a fundamental human right because so many people rely on the Internet for so many things. And we use it day to day, like Facebook and things like that, and I know for a fact that if I didn’t have the Internet then I wouldn’t be able to do my college work and schoolwork. I just use it for everything like social, and work and everything really.

Robert Guerra, Canadian and project director, Internet Freedom, Freedom House: I think increasingly it is. So to answer the question is Internet access a fundamental human right, I would say it is because increasingly governments are moving online. So to be able to access government information to participate as a citizen you need the Internet. So if you don’t have access to the Internet, you can’t be a citizen.

It’s the way to communicate. It’s like voting. You need to be able to vote to be a good citizen, so you need access to the Internet. It’s got to be a right because otherwise you can’t participate.

Vasil Pefev, telerik.com, Bulgaria: I don’t think so. The Internet is just a tool to get the information to you, just like the radio is and just like the TV set is. However, the right to access information is a fundamental right, so what I see is that the Internet will probably become free much like radio waves and your TV is. You just need to buy a device in order to get access to it; however, the access to information is a right access to the Internet is not.

Hechmi Mahjoub, a lawyer based in Tunisia: The Internet is important for human rights, but we must concentrate the specificity of a country, of the civilization and of the religion.

Tracy Hackshaw, Internet Society ambassador to IGF from Trinidad & Tobago: I would say yes, personally I would say yes. From a government perspective I would be careful, but personally I think it is. I think it’s a sort of a utility in human rights so somebody has to pay for it.

From a more cost-effective perspective I would say that it should to be paid for by someone, but from a more personal perspective I would say it is a fundamental human right, it’s like water. We need to communicate to the rest of the world we need to be informed. It’s more than a telephone; it’s more than electricity. To me it’s like water. So yes, it is a fundamental right.

Henry Judy, counsel with K&L Gates, US: Being a lawyer I have problems with even the use of the word “right.” If you’re talking about people having rights as a result of some sort of natural order, or granted by god or you know, I have trouble distinguishing or separating out what is a right and what is the source of the right. And, fundamentally, I come at the issue from a completely existentialist point of view and that is you have whatever rights you assert, you have whatever demands you assert as a right. And it’s a matter of it not being inherent except that the one condition that you have is your own autonomy. And I think that it is legitimate for people to make that demand – Internet access – and denominate it as a right, and insist that the law encode it as a right. But I don’t think it’s inherent or natural. It’s just, I don’t see how people can express their autonomy in the modern world without it, and therefore it is legitimate for them to denominate it as a right.

Pablo Molina, associate VP of IT and campus CIO at Georgetown University: I think it’s a fundamental human right. I think I liked how [Bob] Pepper from Cisco put it yesterday. When it comes to infrastructure the first thing you are going to be looking at, certainly, is water, and then you need energy, and then you need transportation and the fourth infrastructure – perhaps as part of transportation – is the transportation of information.

I think it’s a human right because the data divide – information is the currency of the Internet, and those people who have access to information have an edge in order to purchase products, get an education, sell the fruits of their labor and everything else. You are at a clear disadvantage if you do not have access to the Internet. Now whether or not you have to have broadband access, which is now the law in Finland, I’m not sure about that, but I think it makes sense to afford and provide Internet to pretty much every citizen. That means not only the capacity and the technology but also the training so that they can use it, and something more important that we have not solved, the language skills and the training for those people who don’t speak English.

- Interviews were conducted by Samantha Baranowski, Kirsten Bennett and Drew Smith, researchers from Elon University's School of Communications, under the supervision of Glenn Scott, associate professor, and Janna Anderson, associate professor and director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon. 

- The transcript of these video interviews was prepared by Lindsay Fendt,
a student researcher with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University

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