Is Internet access a 'fundamental right'?

A proposed rule change included in a telecom reform package in the European Parliament goes way too far in declaring Internet access a fundamental right, says Matt Asay.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

We live in a world that demands entitlements for just about everything. While the framers of the U.S. Constitution talked about the rights of assembly, speech, and religion, our modern world has crowned new rights. Universal health care is a hot one. But now the European Commission's Viviane Reding has suggested Internet access as a fundamental human right.

Who knew?

The statement comes as the European Commission grapples with proposed three-strikes legislation, an effort sponsored by France to deny file-sharers Internet access after three warnings of copyright infringement. Opponents of the legislation have responded by suggesting that Internet access is fundamental to liberty, an argument that suffered a setback on Wednesday as the European Parliament voted against codifying Internet access as a basic human right.

It's gratifying to see that someone recognizes that Internet access doesn't rank alongside free speech, even if it can help to publish that speech. Speech is fundamental, but how you express it need not be.

Ms. Reding apparently disagrees, however, as she explains in a statement to the European Parliament (NB: Microsoft Word document, which is really very ironic):

The fourth element I would like to underline is the recognition of the right to Internet access. The new rules recognise explicitly that Internet access is a fundamental right such as the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information. The rules therefore provide that any measures taken regarding access to, or use of, services and applications must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons, including the right to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and education as well as due process.

Wow. We live in such an entitlement culture that we expect to be handed everything, Internet access now included. Does that mean I'm guaranteed fast access, or will dial-up do?

Sun's Simon Phipps explained to me over Twitter that "if the stated direction of government is eGovernment then citizen access to the Internet is a right not a privilege," which makes sense, but provides a very slippery slope. Following this line of reasoning, shouldn't I have a right to cable TV, since that's where I watch C-SPAN and other government-related activity? If that's how the government chooses to communicate with me, the citizen, I darn well better get full access!

Or how about a right to get The Wall Street Journal? It provides useful commentary on my government's actions and how they affect my wallet. But then, I'd also need The New York Times so that I could develop a balanced view on important political matters.

None of which will matter if the government doesn't force upon me the right to education! And not just any education, but an education that makes me fully capable of making intelligent voting decisions and filling out endless forms.

See the problem?

Glyn Moody suggests "framing this in terms of "rights" is pretty silly, but it's significant politically that (Reding) chose to put it this way," and he's absolutely right. It's also very dangerous.

The Western world is big on rights these days, and seems to forget its responsibilities. Indeed, the interesting thing about the fundamental rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is that they mostly involve keeping government out of the lives of citizens, whereas these new government-granted rights do the opposite: they beg government to get deeply involved with citizens' lives through taxes and regulation.

I'd therefore turn this discussion on its head, and suggest to Reding and the European Commission: we may choose to shoulder the responsibility for delivering Internet access to Europe and the rest of the world, but let's term it as a "fundamental responsibility," and not as a "fundamental right."

After all, let's be honest: if the government assumes Internet access as a fundamental right, it ultimately is granting itself the fundamental right to tax its citizens to pay for it. I don't feel any burning desire to pay for your "right" to download silly YouTube videos, porn, or even to read this blog, which is what people would do 99.999 percent of the time with their Internet access. None of these is fundamental to freedom or to a happy, fulfilling life (except maybe that last one ;-).

Do more, in other words, and expect less.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay. It is your right. :-).