Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

My Internet, Right or Wrong

June 8, 2011

The stars have aligned for the Jester, who is fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and U.N. Special Rapporteur, Frank William La Rue, in affirming the need for the Internet to be a human right. (Thanks to @jeffswin and @fortuny for bringing the Pakistani and U.N. news to the Jester’s attention. The Jester chuckled at @fortuny’s triumphant tone, and appreciated @random_musings’s wry remark about the U.N. ignoring the Jester. The Jester demands that his country be recognized by the United Nations!)

In light of both grassroots and grass-tops support for the Internet as a human right, it might seem all too foolish for the Jester to rant against the idea. Nevertheless, ranting is the Jester’s favorite pastime. If only some queendom would actually pay him for it!

The Jester has already posted his arguments against human-right-ism of ICT. So, he will focus on rebutting rebuttals.

Fool-for-the-Day Jaume Fortuny begins, “Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people,” and continues with several such platitudes. The Jester is certainly not against social harmony, personal development, or dignity in the lives of people, and actively believes that these things should be worked on very directly.

The real question is not whether these things are important, but how best to achieve them. ICT, alas, is simply not even a partial cure for challenging social problems. Technology amplifies human intent and capacity. Consider social harmony: if people want to fight rather than to reconcile, then the Internet only makes the fighting more intense. Witness the phenomenon of cyber-balkanization in the United States, for example, where conservatives and liberals each have their vocal representatives and blogs, and only scream more loudly at each other. Just a quarter of a century ago, it was common for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate on legislation. Today, with the miracle of the Internet, politicians are even more beholden to their constituents, and constituents isolate themselves in parallel Internet universes that never intersect. Is that ICT-enabled social harmony?

Mr. Fortuny is on firmer ground when he suggests that developing countries might want to learn from the Finnish capacity for innovation. The Jester agrees, but capacity for innovation and use of technology are two different things. It’s relatively easy to drive a car; it’s much harder to engineer one (and then to profit from it). Not understanding that difference is at the heart of much ICT confusion.

FftD Tony Roberts asks, “In a world where oppressed groups with the volition and potential ability to overturn dictators and challenge injustice, chose the internet, or other ICTs as the most efficacious tools in a stage of their struggle, should we deny them the right?”

The Jester has two responses to this question: First, Mr. Roberts may have misunderstood the nature of a declared “human right” as the Jester was critiquing it. The Jester never said that anyone should be actively denied the use of the Internet. Though it may come as a surprise to readers, the Jester doesn’t go around sabotaging telecenters as a side hobby!

The question is whether the Internet must be actively made available to everyone, which is the implication of something being a human right. There are many things that are desirable, but which cannot practically be provided for all, and are not absolutely critical to dignified human life. For example, if Twitter ever becomes necessary for dignified human life, the Jester will likely take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix.

Note that the United Nations has not issued a declaration of the human right to gasoline-powered vehicles, even though it could be argued that physical mobility is an even more fundamental need than the ability to watch YouTube. Despite the immense utility of transport, human beings can, amazingly, live decent lives without automobiles (unlike food, water, air, shelter, or basic healthcare), and it would likely burst  developing country budgets to provide transport to every citizen.

A second interpretation of Mr. Roberts question might be that for the very sake of fighting for human rights, shouldn’t we make the Internet a human right? This point of view is particularly relevant given the current uprisings in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is also very circular. It falls into the category of the most common response that the Jester receives: “If X, not ICT, is what’s important in development, then how about using ICT for X?”

If the Jester had a dime for every time someone asked him that, he would simply fund a T1 line for everyone on the planet, just so that we could all move on to the real challenges. Of course, it would be nice if freedom fighters everywhere (the good ones, anyway) could have access to the Internet so that they could communicate with each other and the world, while their evil oppressors are stuck with carrier pigeons. Maybe if declaring the Internet a human right got us one inch closer to that possibility, we ought to do it. FftD Frank La Rue in his report writes, U.N.“ Special Rapporteur calls upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” (The Jester would like to know, where did they come up with his fancy title, and can he have one like it, too? Perhaps, Special Royal Gluteal Ache to the U.N.)

But the reality is that any dictator willing to shut down or censor the Internet is already engaged in violating other more important human rights, such as the right not to be shot in the head or tortured by secret police. Mr. La Rue filed his report on May 16, a couple of months after the Syrian uprisings began.

The Jester likes to imagine President Bashar al-Assad having the following moral quandary: “In order to stay in power, I’ve killed a thousand of my fellow citizens, detained tens of thousands, and even had one 13-year-old tortured and killed. But, the U.N. says the Internet is a human right. Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t shut off the Internet. Hmm, what to do…?”

On June 3, al-Assad reportedly shut down much of the Syrian Internet.

The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

May 31, 2011

About a year ago, the Jester gave a version of his “Myths of ICT4D” talk to an audience of Indian students. Among them was Samujjal Purkayastha, who in an follow-up e-mail asked what the Jester thought of Finland making the Internet a human right. The Finns passed a law requiring that every household in the country have access to a 1Mbps broadband connection. Estonia, France, Greece, Spain, and Costa Rica have followed suit with similar legislation, providing further fodder for self-unaware techno-utopians like Nicholas Negroponte, and fueling ongoing public discussion in international development.

The rhetoric of human rights is emotionally powerful. Anyone who argues against X as a human right must answer the challenge, “How can you deny someone X, when X is so essential?” And of course, few people — not even the Jester in his most Luddite of moods — are explicitly for denying anyone the Internet. (The exceptions are dictators losing their grip on a country making a last-ditch effort to stymie the opposition by cutting communication lines. It does seems to the Jester, though, that any dictator willing to suppress his opposition by force and shut down the Internet will hardly be concerned about public shaming by some foreign diplomats.)

But, the question is not whether to deny someone something that they’ve never had, but whether, of all the things they could have next, the Internet should be it. Unfortunately, when the list of things they don’t have includes reasonable access to clean water, quality primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and basic sanitation, the Internet falls far far behind in the list of priorities. (Nor, incidentally, can any of those things be meaningfully addressed via the Internet. The Jester does not encourage young ICT4D PhD candidates to work on a mechanism by which to convert bits to water, at least not if they wish to finish their dissertation within the third millennium. )

Human rights rhetoric admits no greys. It allows no ordering of priorities. In fact, the whole point of anyone arguing for X as a human right is to turn what is in fact a question of when and how much into one of black-and-white either/or. Proponents hope that once something is accepted as a right, those in power will spare no expense to provide it universally. 

Unfortunately, this logic is short-sighted and counterproductive if true development, and not the selling of some technology product or service, is the goal. As the Jester has written ad infinitum, the Internet is of minimal value to a poor, undereducated farmer earning less than $2 a day. Countries with the highest rates of Internet penetration today are those that happened to be rich already (and which, incidentally, often also have the highest penetration of lots of other things requiring money, such as automobiles). The belief that the Internet makes a country rich is not far from the belief that sticking one’s tongue out makes one Michael Jordan.

Even if broadband access were to cost as low as $5 per month (the current cost of a monthly broadband subscription in India, likely among the lowest in the world), at $60 a year, that is a sum that could be put to use much more meaningfully towards other purposes, such as contributing to a clean-water kiosk, hiring assistant teachers for classes to boost educational outcomes, purchasing decent medical insurance, or installing a latrine.

Furthermore, by adding yet another item to the growing list of human rights, Internet-rights activists diminish the emphasis on those rights that might truly deserve special status. The world is very far even from guaranteeing clean water and minimal nutrition to all 6.7 billion people on the planet. Given that, it’s pure delusion to suggest that international development is ready to take on an information technology as a universal right.

And, if none of that is convincing, consider that the world is marching steadily and quickly towards a world in which everyone will have access to the Internet via their mobile phones. The latest figures are around 5.3 billion mobile phone accounts and 2 billion Internet users. Hungry telecoms will make it happen, anyway, so why should good people interested in development waste their time when other development objectives are being neglected?

None of this is to suggest that Finland, or any other country in particular, is  wrong to provide the Internet to all. For countries that have secured water, nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, and education for every one of their people (as Finland has more or less done), the Internet seems a reasonable next step. But, if developing countries have an aspiration to be more like Finland, it seems clear that there are many other priorities before universal broadband. To start, countries ought to learn from the Finn’s terrific educational system, which, incidentally, uses relatively little ICT.


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