Americans put a lot of stock in Constitutional rights such as one person, one vote, the right to bear arms, equal protection and First Amendment free speech. But in many ways, the voices of dissenting American opinions and their ability to be heard has never been easier to squelch than in today’s information age. Major news outlets often have political agendas that twist and manipulate the statements of ordinary people. Those are some of the reasons that the movement to make Internet access a civil right has been gaining steam around the world.
Where Nations Stand
Countries such as Estonia, Finland and Spain have pushed for universal and reasonably-priced broadband for all citizens. Their approach has been that people should have fair and equal access, but falls just short of declaring it a right. Others have pressed further. In 2009, France’s Constitutional Council handed down a strong legal opinion that Internet access had become a basic human right. Canada views access as “necessary to the quality of life” of its citizens.
Costa Rica has bed a veritable hotbed on the issue, and in 2010 its Supreme Court declared: “At this time, access to these technologies becomes a basic tool to facilitate the exercise of fundamental rights and democratic participation.”
Perhaps the most notable declaration has come from the United Nations. In 2016, the international body passed a non-binding resolution that the right to free speech existed just as firmly online as offline and people enjoyed the same level of protections. Interestingly, the measure was opposed by nations with long and sordid histories of oppression — Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India and South Africa.
One of the interesting debates in recent years pits two liberal-leaning media sources against each other — the NY Times and Huffington Post. The Times published an Op-ed arguing that internet access is not a civil or human right. It’s only the vehicle to facilitate a free speech right. In contrast, The Huff Post published an article that clearly indicated its position that Internet access is a civil right. The piece argues that anything less than all citizens having access amounts to another dark chapter in American history such as “separate but equal.” While the Huff Post is well-known to favor extreme narratives, it seems disingenuous that the NY Times would support their argument by also saying the ink and paper of their publication is merely a vehicle and not a fully protected product.
Many Americans are unaware that groups have tried to suppress free speech on the Internet beyond criminal activity and child protections. For instance, Verizon attempted to block NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion advocacy group. Verizon took the position that their policy didn’t allow for “controversial” or “unsavory” messages. A private domain name registrar also disabled websites on a U.S. Treasury Department “blacklist” and The Guardian news site has been banned to military personnel since Edward Snowden worked with them. WikiLeaks has had court injunctions leveled against it for whistleblowing. It appears that free speech can be rather easily suppressed at the whims of individuals, corporations and government actors. These are some of the reasons for the global movement to make Internet access a protected human or civil right that cannot be crushed by powerful forces.