Is access to the internet a basic human right, just as food, water, safety, and shelter are? The United Nations certainly thinks so. In 2011, they passed a resolution which stated that disconnecting people from the internet was a human rights violation, and in 2012, they passed a resolution that went one step further, declaring that all people should have equal access to the internet.


In the United States, we often take internet access for granted. Thanks to our dependence on smartphones and tablets, our first question when we travel even a few blocks from our homes is, “Will I be able to access Wi-Fi?”  Many cities across the country have stepped up, creating public community hotspots, where all people can connect to the internet with a Wi-Fi -enabled device. But is internet connectivity truly a human right?


Internet Access Is Not A Human Right, Some Say


Those who believe that internet access is a human right believe that without access to the web, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to exercise our most basic rights such as life, liberty, security, and expression.  However, in 2014, we are still seeing a global digital divide. Almost two-thirds of the world is still without internet access. That means that only a small portion of the global population is granted this basic right.


There are, of course, those who sit on the opposite side of the argument. They would not classify Wi-Fi access in the same category as water, food, shelter, and security.  Holders of this view would argue that human rights are those things that people need in order to be able to lead a healthy life. Things such as food, safety, freedom from torture, or freedom of ideas.  Dissenters say that placing technology into the same category as the right to access clean drinking water puts value on the wrong things.


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In 2012, Then Google-VP and US internet pioneer Vinton Cerf penned a column for the New York Times taking the firm view that access to the internet is not, in fact, a human right. According to Cerf, there was a time when a horse was essential for people to be able to make a living. However horses were never considered a human right. The “right” in that scenario is the right to make a living, not the right to own a horse, he says.  While it is difficult for people without internet access to compete on the same level as those who do have it, dissenters believe that it does not prevent them from leading meaningful and healthy lives.


Who Provides The Internet?


Those who argue against the internet as a basic human right also ask the question, “Who is responsible for providing internet access?” Many city governments in the US have begun to shoulder the responsibility with the building out of urban hotspots. Not all communities are able to provide that sort of infrastructure, however. In order to support entire communities, a network must be robust enough to handle large amounts of traffic – an extremely costly expense.


Should the US declare internet access to be in the same category as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, would they be responsible for building and maintaining a nationwide internet infrastructure? Would private internet service providers allow for public hotspots to edge into their “turf?” It’s likely they would fight a government takeover tooth and nail, and it would be impossible to tell just how successful a public initiative would be. It also remains to be seen just how the federal government would be able to pay for such a project, another question that could lead to widespread backlash.


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Internet Access Is A Human Right, Many Believe


The voices in the internet-as-a-right camp are loud, and they are global. The sweeping protests that erupted in the Middle East in 2012 would not have been possible without access to the internet. Even though authoritarian governments attempted to restrict access to online sites and services, people depended upon the internet to stage and carry out their ultimately successful protests. It was the first time that we, as a planet, could see the true power of the internet to change the world.


Those events didn’t just change the political landscape of the Middle East. It motivated many leaders in the tech community to use their power and their money to deliver the internet to underdeveloped nations. Mark Zuckerberg wrote a famous white paper in 2013 declaring this as his own personal mission. Since then, Facebook has partnered with several other tech giants such as Nokia, Samsung, and Ericsson to slash the cost of Wi-Fi. In most places, Wi-Fi access is more expensive than a smartphone or tablet, and they hope to reverse that in the near future.  Google has also gotten on board, creating a network of Wi-Fi balloons to deliver access to parts of the world who have no wired internet infrastructure.


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Supporters of Wi-Fi as a human right point to our knowledge economy as the number one reason why everyone should be granted access to the internet. They believe that in order to have any chance of competing – or surviving – economically, everyone needs access to a global web.


According to Mark Zuckerberg’s white paper, the internet has outpaced agriculture and energy as the largest contributor to GDP in developed countries, and accounts for GDP growth of 21 percent of those developed nations over the last five years.  That is up from 10 percent over the previous 15 years.


Today, internet access is becoming necessary for many people to be able to access education, employment, arts, and healthcare. Supporters believe that the internet is inherently inseparable from these rights and freedoms.


Whether or not a person believes that internet access is a human right or not, it cannot be denied that the human race is becoming increasingly dependent upon technology in our everyday lives. Whether or not public Wi-Fi becomes a responsibility of the government, it seems as though private organizations are not waiting around for change. As small, US city governments do their best to grant access to residents, large corporations are attempting to deliver the internet to underdeveloped nations. It remains to be seen how it will all shake out, but there is likely no turning back. More people will have easier access to the internet in the coming years, and it will be interesting to see its effect on the global economic and political landscape.