A blog on why norms matter online

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two kinds of access

A quick thought a couple of weeks after Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, presented his important report on (inter alia) the online dimension of freedom of expression to the General Assembly's Third Committee. 

In his oral statement, Mr. La Rue highlighted the two dimensions of access: access to Internet and access to online content. Both pose specific, but interrelated human rights challenges. Using the  Internet as a facilitator for other human rights presupposes access to the Internet in the first place (connectivity) and then unfiltered access to content. 

The importance of access - and access to information cannot be underestimated: 

As Mr. La Rue wrote in his report: 
"[By enabling individuals to exchange information and ideas instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders, the Internet allows access to information and knowledge that was previously unattainable. This, in turn, contributes to the discovery of the truth and progress of society as a whole." 
I agree. The discovery of truth and progress is a social act. Though we can never predict what "truth and progress" will be discovered in any given society, as both truth and progress are always contingent upon the constructions of reality and their perceptions in each society at a given time, we should support the process.

This does not mean that we should reroute development funding completely to the Internet. Even bloggers need to eat. But an important part of development aid must go ensuring the physical infrastructure to gain access. 

In a second step the international community needs to highlight the differences between illegal content and content that is harmful, offensive, objectionable, or undesirable. Illegal content should be dealt with by the authorities thus enforcing the informal social contract between users. But ideas that only, the words of the European Court of Human Rights in Handyside v. UK, "shock, offend and disturb" a society or parts of it, need protection. 

To quote Mr. La Rue again: 
"[The] Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States."

1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of these. The fact that "we can never predict what 'truth and progress' will be discovered in any given society" is indeed the motivation for us to uncover truths, as a truth, if true, shall always prevail.

    However, I found Mr Rue's call to abolish defamation laws in member states very ambitious. As you have noted, we should have a regime for unlawful/illegal contents. But instead of filtering and censorship, I opine that we allow everyone speak at his own peril, just as we speak at our own peril in the traditional settings.

    Alternatively, as we have recognized a Right to Internet Access and Right to Access to Online Content, we should go ahead and provide for duties of 'Netizens to safeguard the sanctity of mutual spatial existence on the Cyberspace.