Zuckerberg’s “Internet as a human right” faces policy barriers

National Constitution Center

Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is leading a drive to give almost everyone in the world access to the Internet. But such a lofty goal comes with questions abroad and in the United States that could impair the initiative.

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Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg. Creative Commons: Silverisdead

Zuckerberg spoke with CNN this week about his project, which represents a $1 billion effort on his part to bring the Internet to countries and people who don’t have it.

“They’re going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to healthcare for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades.”

The initiative also points out that 4.5 billion (of the 7 billion people on the planet today) don’t have Internet access, and even in the United States, 19 percent of people don’t have Internet access.

Zuckerberg downplayed criticism that the effort was just a scheme to get more people on Facebook. He said he’s leading the project so people have the “same ability to share their opinions and speak freely — I think that would be a much better place.”

“Connectivity is a human right,” he also insisted.

But in reality, the Internet that Zuckerberg and most Americans recognize might not be the one that is seen by users in many other countries.

Global access to the Internet, including censorship issues, is a topic we’ve covered several times on Constitution Daily in the story of the International Telecommunications Union, a UN group that might contest the United States’ control this fall over how Internet access points are assigned and monitored.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages domains and controls the Internet’s backbone. ICANN operates as a nonprofit company at the direction of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Prior to 1998, the U.S. government managed Internet domain names directly.)

Some critics say the ITU (and the U.N.) want to take ICANN away from any swaying influence exerted on it by the U.S. government, which would allow individual nations censor the Internet within their borders—and charge companies for access to their citizens.

So even if people get cheap or free access to the Internet as part of Zuckerberg’s internet.org initiative, they may get a limited version where they can’t “share their opinions and speak freely.”

A 2012 report from Freedom House showed that among 47 major nations it surveyed, about 28 percent blocked or censored Internet access. It also said 19 of 47 countries, about 40 percent, had laws that restricted online free speech or presented privacy issues.

And in 26 of the 47 countries, bloggers have been arrested for making political comments.

The most-restrictive countries were China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Burma and Pakistan.

As for the United States, the report makes a passing reference to the USA Patriot Act, and it was issued before revelations came to light about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens..

And not everyone in the United States believes Internet access is a right. In a 2012 commentary in the New York Times, Internet founding father Vint Cerf said, “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right.”

Cert conceded there was a stronger argument for Internet access as a civil rights issue, because they “are conferred upon us by law, not intrinsic to us as human beings.”

“Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. 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,” he said.

And even the definition of “Internet rights” is murky in the United States. One person who understands the challenge is someone who can affect the debate over technology and constitutional rights: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Roberts told an audience last fall in Texas that biggest challenge in front of the Court is to identify “the fundamental principle underlying what constitutional protection is and apply it to new issues and new technology.” He said, “I think that is going to be the real challenge for the next 50 years.”

Those challenges will range from privacy concerns to First Amendment issues.

Beyond the United States, countries will also struggle with the legal definitions of the rights to Internet access and the rights of people who are using the Internet.

In the Washington Journal of Law, Technology & Arts, Young Joon Lim and Sarah E. Sexton argued last year in a paper called the “Internet as a Human Right” that a legal framework would need to be in place before the discussion of a global right to the Internet can be addressed.

That framework includes “six basic elements” to support “the unique challenges presented by the Internet as it becomes a primary mode of communication.”

Lim and Sexton said a key component was the challenge of “creating an Internet culture that is local and personalized, where societal norms apply” in each country and how countries deal with international issues about content and law enforcement.

Those components don’t appear to be part of the Zuckerberg initiative, at least for now, according to information on the group’s website . The group says it is focused on consumer affordability and working with the business community.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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