Vint Cerf: Internet access isn't a human right

One of the "fathers of the Internet" says that the Web is an "enabler of rights," but not an actual right.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read
Vinton Cerf
Vinton Cerf Google

Although some countries around the world argue that Internet access is a fundamental right, one of the "fathers of the Internet," Vint Cerf, doesn't see it that way.

"Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself," Cerf, who is also a Google's chief Internet evangelist, wrote yesterday in an editorial in The New York Times. "There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things."

But not everyone is so quick to agree. In 2009, Finland announced that it was making one-megabit broadband a legal right, and plans to make 100-megabit broadband a right by the end of 2015. That country's decision came just months after France announced that Internet access is basic human right.

The same year, the European Union's European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding wrote to the European Parliament, saying that Internet access is no different than other basic freedoms we value.

"The new rules recognise explicitly that Internet access is a fundamental right such as the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information," Reding wrote at the time. "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."

But perhaps Reding and those who agree with her are missing the point. According to Cerf, the real issue at play across the Web is not access, which is too difficult to define to make the right's implementation practical, but how "technology creators" use the Internet to help users "exercise their human and civil rights."

"In this context, engineers have not only a tremendous obligation to empower users, but also an obligation to ensure the safety of users online," Cerf argues. "That means, for example, protecting users from specific harms like viruses and worms that silently invade their computers. Technologists should work toward this end."

It's perhaps no surprise that an employee at Google--a company that has made "don't be evil" its mantra--would want to see the Internet become safer. But it's something that Google, itself, has a stake in. The company has a slew of engineers on its payroll, which means, according to Cerf, their jobs should encompass "civil responsibilities."

Speaking of civil rights, Cerf made headlines last month, as well, when he wrote a letter to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, arguing that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which, if approved, would allow the Justice Department to swiftly eliminate sites from the Web that allegedly contain pirated content, could usher in "unprecedented censorship of the Web."

"SOPA's site-blocking provisions remain problematic," Cerf wrote. "They would undermine the architecture of the Internet and obstruct the 15-year effort by the public and private sectors to improve cybersecurity through implementation of DNSSEC, a critical set of extensions designed to address security vulnerabilities in the DNS."