Human rights evolve with modernity, and the United Nations Human Rights Council has recognised this fact with a newly passed resolution aimed at promoting and protecting the “enjoyment of human rights on the internet.” Freedom of speech and assembly has been long recognised as a natural right in a free society, however this language for the first time stresses that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” This is a significant piece of international support to political dissenters and activists around the world who face harsh retribution for comments and messages posted online through social media and public forums.
Many of us in western countries take our internet capabilities for granted. So second nature is this new pastime of the modern world that cultural leaders go on rants that we’re spending too much time talking into the aether and not disconnecting and enjoying the world.
17 countries that did not sign on to the resolution include Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Cuba, Congo, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Vietnam.
What it means to individuals
The resolution falls short of implying that access to internet service should be free or that limiting one’s online access is inherently a violation of human rights. But the language is crafted strongly enough that to do now what could be considered “infringing” on one’s human rights by diminishing their access to the internet or online communication, a country’s government would have to be able to articulate why this is not against the spirit of this UN policy.
This doesn’t mean that citizens of countries that are now signatories are guaranteed international protection from censorship or arbitrary removal of their internet access, but it is a strong step in that direction. But don’t let common misconceptions regarding freedom of speech transfer to this. I mean, it won’t protect you if you break your NDA or commit libel.
It’s is a necessary tool
Connecting to the world is a matter of survival and protecting one’s livelihood. So much so that Turkish shepherds have found creative methods of charging their smartphones out in the desert. When you’re miles away from a computer, or a city, or another person, a smartphone is your tether to the rest of the world.
Many point out that guaranteeing online access is all well and good, but when the poorest individuals often can barely afford food, let alone electronics, some have gone so far to say there might be a not too far off future wherein smartphone ownership itself is a human right.
For those who feel this way, there was promising news coming out of India in the last few days about a $4 smartphone that was making its way around tech and smartphone blogs anxious to believe the hype. Sadly, however, it appears the publicity was too good to be true, as tech journalists from Bloomberg, Engadget, and Android Authority have pointed out the specifications of such a device (which appeared to basically be a plastic-enclosed Android phone) were “sketchy as hell,” and the factory to produce them has not even been set up yet (despite a launch date that was supposed to be more than a week ago at this point).
A smartphone that is affordable to every citizen worldwide could be as revolutionary as giving cars to the workers who manufactured them. Perhaps even more so, as a car only allows a person to travel for miles on roads, but a smartphone allows one the entire collective history of humanity and the ability to connect with anyone else on the globe.
Sadly, too many countries are resistant to the notion that the benefits of open, free communication far outweigh the downsides. We can take comfort in the fact that, at the very least, the international community through the UN have set the new norm for dealing with online access.