Vint Cerf says internet not a human right

The bloke who invented the World Wide Web has found himself at odds with the man who fathered the Internet.

Vint Cerf, who has the title of Father of the Internet because he was a programme manager for the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) when it was developing TCP/IP, has written in the New York Times  that the internet is not a human right. In this he is following the American government which thinks that the internet is ok provided that you are not pirating music and film.

However, the statement is against what the father of the world wide web creator Sir Tim Berners- Lee said.

Cerf wrote that the recent Arab Spring demonstrations thrived because thousands of people turned out to participate, they could never have happened as they did without the ability that the internet offers to communicate, organise and publicise everywhere, instantaneously.

Cerf dismissed courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia which have pronounced internet access a human right, saying that while these things were well meaning they missed a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.

He said there was a high bar for something to be considered a human right. You have to deal with things like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience before you get to things like an internet connection.

Putting technology into this exalted category makes things difficult over time too, he says. Once, if you lacked a horse, it was hard to make a living. But if it was everyone’s right to have a horse then it would be pretty silly today, he reasons.

It is better to talk about critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information which are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time.

Cerf said that internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important. No one has ever said that everyone has a “right” to a telephone, even if it has come close with the idea of “universal service.”

He said that it was overlooking the responsibility of technology creators to support human and civil rights. The internet has introduced an enormously accessible and egalitarian platform for creating, sharing and obtaining information on a global scale. As a result, we have new ways to allow people to exercise their human and civil rights.

The internet needs to be seen as a tool to improve the human condition and it must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection, without pretending that access itself is such a right.

In principle, it sounds OK, but practically Cerf means that a digital divide is acceptable, so long as those with technology are working to make life better for those who don’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told an MIT symposium that people have become so reliant on the web that it should be a right to have access to it.

He said that while it was possible to live without the web, the difference between somebody who is connected is part of the information society, and someone who is not is growing bigger. He said that now it has reached a point where internet use was a basic human right.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that Sir Tim grew up in a proper democracy and not a corporate oligarchy like Cerf, and he is currently not taking money from the “anti-net neutrality on mobile phones” outfit Google.