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Internet Access as a Human Right

Libertarians (and some fellow travelers) have long been rightly skeptical, or even afraid, of the United Nations. There has been legitimate fear that it was a step towards one-world government, and global democracy with all the redistribution from North to South (i.e., West to third world/developing countries) that it would bring. The UN’s rhetoric is redistributionist and soft-socialist–calling for redistribution of manganese nodule wealth in the sea to poorer nations and other positive rights, such as social security, employment, equal pay for equal work, vacation time, food, housing, medical care and education1 The term “human rights” thus has a socialist or leftist tinge, being associated not only with genuine rights, and legitimate procedural or prophylactic/civil rights (i.e. rights that are not natural but that are good fictional standins for limitations on state power), but also socialistic positive welfare rights.

However, international law, and the idea of the UN, is not all bad. International law is less dominated by artificial state legislation and is thus still more rooted in general principles of law–such as the doctrine pacta sunt servanda (agreements are to be respected), and related ideas like territorial integrity. And the idea of a place where nation-states can settle disputes instead of going to war is not all that bad. Further, it seems to me that the danger of a one-world government run by the UN has largely dissipated; the dominant nation-states, especially the US, don’t seem likely to cede their sovereignty to the UN. Instead, the real danger is that under the guise of the UN the US and other militarily powerful states (see Hoppe on why they are) has become the real hegemon. In either case, whether out of fear of loss of sovereignty to a centralizing one-world-government/UN, or to avoid giving the US another tool to impose its will on the world, there are good arguments that the US ought to get out of the UN (see Ron Paul, NeoCon Global Government; Paul has sponsored legislation to withdraw the US from the UN). Again, the chief concern nowadays is not fear of the UN itself but the danger of its being used as a legitimacy-cover for US-led aggression and domination.

And as noted, one has to be wary of the catch-phrase “human rights” as it can sometimes mean positive welfare rights. But not always. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council has recently opined that denying Internet access or related penalties–via laws such as “three strikes” laws in France and the United Kingdom that boot users off the Internet for repeated copyright infringement, as well as ACTA and the DMCA–can violate human rights to free speech and related rights. In other words, the idea is that Internet access is a human right, and state regulations and laws that impair this are illegitimate.

Now, is Internet access really a human right–or, as we would say, an individual right, or libertarian right? Is free speech even a legitimate human right? No. As Rothbard explains, all human rights are property rights. But in a state legal system, a legal right simply acts as a limitation on state power. For the libertarian, who sees all or most state power as bad precisely because it infringes on real libertarian rights, any limitation on state power, even if it is labeled as a “right” but is really not a genuine libertarian right, is to be welcome. With one exception: that of positive rights, such as a right to food or a job; such “rights,” instead of being limitations on state power, are disguised grants of power to the state: it is then authorized to take from A to provide B with his “right.” But for other negative rights, such as a right to free speech, even though these are not real, independent rights (in libertarian theory, the right to free speech is merely a consequence of the more fundamental right to one’s body), it is still useful to have them seen as limits on the state. Other examples include constitutional and other “rights” that are not really natural rights, but merely “civil” rights, such as the right to due process, rights against double jeopardy, and so on. Any libertarian should favor these “rights” being imposed as limitations on state power.

And so it is with Internet access. There is no doubt that the Internet has become one of the most important weapons against the state, and use of the Internet crucial to survival in the modern world. Anything that restricts the power of states to hamper the Internet or to harm individuals by limiting their access to the Internet is good. And this is why I am not opposed to the UN implicit recognition of Internet access as a human right. (But please, don’t impose a global tax to set up municipal “free” wifi in poor communities around the world!)

Update: See the recent decisions of various local courts and regional and international tribunals in this ASIL International Law in Brief, for a sample of how these courts tend to be better than the policies of the states. See also The UN, International Law, and Nuclear Weapons.

Also: Vint Cerf: Internet Access Not a Human Right


  1. See my posts Bush and the Socialist “Law of the Sea Treaty” and Intellectual Property as Socialistic “Human Rights”. []
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