This month, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council recognized access to the Internet as a human right. The report was written by UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, and it separately considers access to Internet content and access to the infrastructure required for Internet access. The report cites over 2 billion Internet users worldwide and notes that the Internet has becomes a key means through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. La Rue concludes that “there should be as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the Internet, except in few, exceptional, and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law.”
The report seems motivated by recent episodes of political unrest such as the Arab Spring uprisings. La Rue states that the Internet is “one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.” He notes that countries have been increasingly censoring online information through 1) arbitrary blocking or filtering of content, 2) criminalization of legitimate expression, 3) imposition of intermediary liability, 4) disconnecting users from Internet access, and 5) inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection.La Rue recognizes some legitimate reasons to restrict Internet access, like in the case of cyber- attacks, but focuses on how countries often abuse their power and infringe on the rights of their citizens:
In many instances, States restrict, control, manipulate and censor content disseminated via the Internet without any legal basis, or on the basis of broad and ambiguous laws, without justifying the purpose of such actions… Such actions are clearly incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law, and often create a broader “chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
La Rue specifically notes his concern with the “three- strikes-law” in France and the UK’s Digital Economy Act of 2010. Both of these proposals are anti-piracy measures that would impose penalties against Internet users for illegal file sharing and violation of intellectual property rights. The end result could be suspension of Internet service if copyright infringers disregard warnings. La Rue considers that
Cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 19 of the ICCPR concerns the right to freedom of expression.
The fundamental human rights doctrine, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), was penned in 1948 just after the end of WWII. In part based on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms , the document was largely a response to the atrocities seen in the war. Article 19 of the UDHR states that
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The drafters left the definition of ‘media’ open in anticipation of new technologies, and the Internet and its extraordinary proliferation in recent years is the most relevant form of media in our time.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights.
But even if Internet access constitutes a human right, many countries lack access to basic commodities such as electricity, let alone the necessary infrastructure and technologies to access the Internet. La Rue rests on the positive obligation of countries to work towards promoting or facilitating freedom of expression. He encourages countries to develop a “concrete and effective policy… to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population.”
La Rue’s report remains the first recommendation in a series of negotiations on how to adopt access to the Internet as a fundamental right. As La Rue concludes, “given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States.”
La Rue is right to understand the internet as a means to effectuate development. The implications for healthcare can, of course, be staggering. An internet connection is no substitute for bread or medicine but that connection makes widely available medical techniques and public health information and makes “remoteness” a somewhat antiquated concept. If global health is to substantially improve, internet access will ultimately be key.