Saturday, April 28, 2012

Internet access, a human right?

The internet is there a human right? It was the complex question asked during the www2012 conference which was held this week in Lyon. Proposed answer ... Internet played a significant role in the popular protests of the Arab Spring. Would they have happened without the network? Impossible to say, but it is clear that mobile connectivity and social networks have greatly facilitated their organization, to the point they have sometimes been dubbed "Facebook revolutions" or "Twitter revolution".

Occupy the movement, which has learned from this popular initiative, has meanwhile been clearly articulated by the use of the network. IRC and the web have been essential elements of communication among the demonstrators.

Communication is the key word here: as a means to connect the organizers of these events, the internet has been the target of repression, disruption of mobile networks in Tunisia to the destruction of the network of the Free Network Foundation at Zuccotti Park through the historical break the internet in Egypt.

This repression was experienced as a form of censorship, the denial of a fundamental freedom, that of expression. Amalgam, the internet itself has been elevated to a right by these protesters. We find this name among critics of "anti-piracy", especially those covering the cut Internet: how a financial interest could he go against a fundamental liberty without a court, let alone in democracies?

Amendment 138 of the Telecom package in the summer of 2008 had set a precedent semantic "no restriction may be imposed against the fundamental rights and freedoms of end users, without prior ruling by judicial authorities, notably in accordance with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on freedom of expression and information, unless public safety is threatened. "

It seems that we are witnessing a shift logic here: the internet is not a fundamental right, but a facilitator of access to basic rights. It is a means to an end. Although its position has sometimes been challenged, Vinton Cerf probably summarized best what may seem like a paradox:

Although well intentioned, this argument [that the internet would be a fundamental right] misses a deeper reflection: technology is a catalyst for rights, not a law itself. The bar for something to be considered a right is very high. Roughly, a right is something we, as humans, we need to live healthy and expected, as the protection against torture and freedom of conscience. It would be a mistake to place a specific technology in this category of the utmost importance, because we risk little by little holding in esteem the wrong things. There was a time when if you did not have a horse, it was difficult to make a living. In this case, the most important was the right to earn a living, no right to a horse. Today, if I had the right to a horse, I do not know where I would put it.

The UN itself says the same thing, although its report on freedom of expression has often been much misunderstood. It does not proclaim that the Internet is a fundamental right, but boasts its ability to promote the production and expression of fundamental rights:

In general, by allowing individuals to exchange information and ideas instantly and inexpensively by ignoring national boundaries, Internet offers a degree of access to information and knowledge so far impossible to achieve. This in turn contributes to the discovery of truth and progress of society. Internet has indeed become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression [...].

If it is a means to an end, the internet must be protected, however, in that it is now the easiest way, most effective, but also one of the most fragile to express fundamental rights. The inventor of the Web Tim Berners-Lee said repeatedly, including its Internet web layer may suffer from their centralized architecture. DNS interpretation of Internet addresses is now a little more spread on the surface of the globe than it was several years ago, but it remains controlled by a very limited number of states and societies. The United States thus retain the ability to lock a large part of the network in a very short time. The system of security certificates suffers the same problem, since it is run by a very small number of companies: the TLS / SSL has recently been completely hijacked by hackers on the payroll of the Iranian government.

Vice President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, has also in these debates, is worried about another form of centralization, it also inherent to the nature of the Internet. This network, we said, is a catalyst: as a relatively new field, it offers tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs. It's actually become a space for innovation, but innovation can become monopolies in favor of their success, restoring closed spaces not communicating with each other in an open: the ubiquity of Google and Facebook on the web, or even the importance of Apple in the world of mobile applications, are risks for the web.

These problems coming from the same components of the Internet in addition to external pressures, or more devices, from players looking askance at the network. It is primarily economic forces, established companies were unable or unwilling to take the turn of dematerialization and / or whose business model is challenged by the opening of the Internet. These are then political forces, the internet used to be their challenge, whether they are enriched by ideas of economic forces - in a close form of collusion when lobbies provide drafts of bills (which explains the reactions provisions as to DeBill and Digital Economy Act in Britain, and DADVSI Hadopi in France, or SOPA and CISPA United States). Should not forgetting a fact of fundamental importance: internet, access, and the use made of it should remain subject to laws. Not to laws that would be tailored for this technology - they are both opportunistic and vain, fighting on a form rather than substance (it goes back to the problem of the horse). The laws as they exist, even if they are amended to take into account changes in society. Internet is indeed not a virtual network operating in a separate space: it is not material, it is intangible, but exists in our space, and should logically be subject to the same rules.

The central problem is to find a balance to ensure a neutral and open access to the internet without this access could pass these laws. We do not clutter here of a debate on network neutrality, which seems to be obvious since it exists in other networks: nobody has ever claimed you provide "best experience of electricity" another. This is the main concern of Neelie Kroes and any part of the European legislative body: the regulation must prevent that innovation becomes a monopoly, without pay in censorship. 

At European level and international regulation must also avoid the multiple national regulations are also forms of censorship. Internet access is there a human right? The first answer is probably negative. But because this access allows the expression of human rights, it must be protected. Without this protection becomes itself a form of coercion. That's the difficulty of the problem, which has no simple solution, and will undoubtedly continue to do much about - and somewhere, the simple fact that warrants mention, at least for a time, that some freedom to access internet is preserved. It was also one of the conclusions of www2012.

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