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.