The UN Did Not Declare an Internet Right

You might think the United Nations has declared a universal Internet right, based on some of the bloggy news of the past week. Wired’s Threat Level started the ball rolling Friday with a claim by David Kravets that a U.N. Report Declares Internet Access a Human Right:

A United Nations report said Friday that disconnecting people from the internet is a human rights violation and against international law.

Read Write Web’s Curt Hopkins dropped the “report” qualifier and baldly declared on Tuesday that the United Nations Proclaims Internet Access a Human Right:

Now, the United Nations has proclaimed that Internet access itself is a human right.

This struck me as a bit fishy because there are so many candidates for human rights status. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it’s difficult to see it in the same category as say, food, water, electricity, education, health care, peace, justice, and free speech and education in general. Unless the U. N. has already covered all these other bases, an Internet right is a bit premature, to say the least.

It turns out these stories are wrong: The Wired story is misleading, and the Read Write Web story is simply a lie. What actually happened is that a Special Rapporteur to the U. N. Human Rights Commission, one Frank La Rue, delivered a report to the HRC offering his personal opinion to the effect that providing Internet access should be “a priority for all states:”

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.

This stops well short of declaring a human right to the Internet.

Wired’s spin is also misleading because they position this opinion as a “U. N. Report;” such language implies that the U. N. itself issued this report as a public statement of principle or finding of fact. There was a U. N. report in the sense that a report was delivered TO the U. N.’s Human Rights Commission, but not a U. N. report in the sense of delivered BY the U. N.

Special Rapporteurs are unpaid volunteers commissioned by the Human Rights Commission to offer their own personal opinions to the HRC, for consideration and discussion, and they’re not rubber stamped by the HRC. In fact, the HRC has an FAQ that describes their significance:

“[The Human Rights Commission] examines [Special Rapporteur] reports and
passes resolutions either welcoming or criticizing the work of the
expert, or simply takes note of their action.”

The HRC has not passed a resolution welcoming and endorsing Frank La Rue’s opinion, and even if it did, that would not constitute a declaration of a new human right to the Internet. What’s really happening is that Frank La Rue is suggesting the HRC have a discussion about the wisdom of disconnecting people from the Internet who have transgressed in various ways, such as repeatedly selling unlawful content or committing other types of cyber crimes. Given the movement by nations around the world to enact penalties for scofflaws who use the Internet to commit crimes, and the outrageous response from much of the activist community against the extension of law to the Internet, it’s not an unreasonable discussion to have.

The question that La Rue suggests needs some clarification is what sorts of sanctions are appropriate for those who use the Internet as a means of engaging in criminal conduct.

Frank La Rue did not declare a human right to the Internet, nor does his opinion represent an official position of the U. N. So why do our blog journalists mangle the story so completely?

The only answer I can see is that there’s only a story here that’s worthy of bloggy attention if the facts are grossly misrepresented. “Human Rights Commission asked to discuss penalties for Internet Crime” just doesn’t have the linky appeal as “U. N. Declares Universal Right to Pirated Content,” which is essentially what Kravets and Hopkins are saying.

This is a small example of the way that web journalism is eroding the public policy discourse on technology in general and on the Internet in particular. Web journalism is siphoning off advertising and subscription dollars that once supported legitimate journalism, and it’s using them to mix up a weird brew of sensationalism and misinformation. Nowhere is the quality of web journalism worse than in coverage of the Internet itself.

The assumption that outlets like Wired.com and Read Write Web seem to be making is that people who get their news on the Web are closely affiliated with The Pirate Bay, Anonymous, and Lulzsec. Blogs need to develop a loyal audience, so those who have chosen to appeal to the downloading, file-swapping, and unlawful sale of intellectual property communities offer up an endless menu of sensationalized stories about the supposed erosion of freedom, such as this one.

The end result is the replacement of legitimate news coverage with sensationalized nonsense. It’s as if the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were replaced by the National Enquirer and Weekly World News. This can’t be healthy for democracy. Ironically, the worst offenders are the loudest in proclaiming their championship of the little guy and the grass roots.

In reality, it’s now mainstream to read news on the Internet. The recent Pew Report on the state of journalism found that more Americans get their news on the Internet than from any source except local television. So the assumption that anyone who reads news on the Internet is a juvenile hacker is simply wrong today, no matter how correct it may have been in the past.

There’s another wrinkle to this “U. N. Declares Internet a Human Right” meme, much more nefarious than what I’ve already mentioned. The tabloid bloggers, particularly Curt Hopkins, knew they were fibbing when they inflated this bit of news the way they did. Toward the end of his story,  Hopkins rewrites the assertions that formed the lede of his story, after quoting the section of La Rue’s report quoted above:

So it is not, in itself, a human right. Rather, due to its importance in contemporary global society, it enables the realization of those rights – rights such as freedom of expression – and as such, must be maintained.

OK, that backs out the Human Right claim. Then he goes on to back out the U. N. claim, at least part way:

My specialty, if I can be said to have one, is not international law. However, although this is not a binding document, so far as I know, the bully pulpit of the United Nations makes it impossible to ignore.

This almost makes the story true, other than the fact that Frank La Rue isn’t the U. N., doesn’t speak for the U. N., and doesn’t even get a paycheck from the U. N. Special Rapporteurs are volunteers.

This breathless story wasn’t confined to a couple of lame tech blogs; it was reported in more or less the same way by The Atlantic, Catholic Online, and a number of other outlets.

This is how urban myths are started.

  • George Ou

    Whenever I hear the word “right”, it is often is used as a euphemism for “entitlement”. In this particular context, “right” is used as some sort of immunity to being banned on the Internet which I don’t think is appropriate. I think most people would agree that criminal elements that hack or run denial of service attacks against the Internet’s users and businesses have no right to be on the Internet.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe banishment from the Internet is a punishment that fits the crime of music piracy and I also don’t think ISPs are interested in firing their customers. To combat content theft, the rights owners should seek other legal avenues of redress.

  • Disconnecting first offenders would be overkill, but the French three strikes law only disconnects repeat, three-time offenders. This seems like an appropriate remedy for people who demonstrate a particular dedication to piracy, provided it doesn’t last forever. Criminal justice does have to allow for redemption.

    Everybody has their own concept of the threshold crime that warrants removal from the system. People in the infrastructure business, as Paul Vixie is, condemn attacks on the infrastructure and support serious sanctions for those who commit them. People in the content business have a different threshold, and that’s as it should be.

  • George Ou

    If someone continues to pirate music even after 3 warnings, then the logical course of action in my opinion is to make the offender pay for what they have pirated with some sort of settlement. I don’t see how anything good can happen from cutting off their Internet access. The content owner doesn’t get any kind of compensation, the broadband provider loses a customer, and the household loses access to the Internet which includes collateral damage.

  • Richard Bennett

    What benefit comes from putting criminals in jail? Their victims get no compensation, the state loses a taxpayer, and the family loses their income. Yet we do that to prevent them from offending and to deter others from offending.

  • George Ou

    That is a very good point Richard. I’d argue that the prison system is wrong as well though that’s an entirely different discussion. The problem with this comparison is that the Government doesn’t use its own money to jail people because it uses our money. When we ask ISPs to banish people from the Internet, that is asking the ISP to lose its own money.

    But we are not talking about prisons and felons. We’re talking about people copying content without paying for it which is certainly wrong and needs to be addressed, but the solution needs to be more intelligent.

  • When an dedicated pirate is banned from the Internet, the effect on ISPs is minor, and can be positive if they’re heavy consumers of bandwidth. People who create worms and who engage in serious security attacks have been banned from the Internet as a condition of parole for a long time, so there’s nothing new here.

    Looking at the problem of network abuse from only one point of view – whether it’s the ISP’s or the content owner’s or the pirate’s – leads to bizarre conclusions. It’s an ecosystem in which some players contribute in a positive way and some are merely parasites.

    And I don’t want the prisons emptied either. We may lock up far too many people, but prison is the appropriate place for many offenders to be.

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  • George Ou

    Note that I am not disputing that content pirates should be exonerated. We’re merely quibbling over what the punishment shall be.

  • Steve Crowley

    Regarding the issue raised, I agree it’s real, and think one solution may be what Dan Gillmor suggests in his new book Mediactive — be suspicious of all sources, but realize you can be less suspicious of some — High Tech Forum and ITIF would be among those.

    I think there may be a related issue — I hope not too far afield for these comments — and that is the quality of the technology policy discussion. Reducing tech policy debate to tossing hoary chestnuts back and forth until regulators cry “uncle” and make a decision, instead of real debate. Trade association and public interest groups, many staffed with a certain number of drones whose job it is to simply toss these chestnuts around, who next week could be arguing plastic bag taxes for the National Grocers Association with equal passion, knowledge, and experience — and sometimes bringing nothing more to the table than political connections. These are sometimes lawyers and former politicians, who regrettably sometimes possess the charisma that more technical types do not. My sense is this discussion quality has become worse in DC over the past few years. But, maybe it was always bad, it’s just more visible now with the many media.

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