Earlier this year, the United Nations officially declared internet access and freedom of expression online to be fundamental human rights. More specifically, the U.N. report said that disconnecting people from the internet is a human rights violation.
As Laura Ling explains in this Seeker Daily report, the U.N. declaration marks a potentially historic turning point for the Information Age.
First things first: When it comes to official U.N. statements, the term "right" has a specific meaning. Universal rights are those considered to be inherent to all human beings -- regardless of race, gender or nationality -- and they cannot be lessened or revoked. Examples might include the right to move freely, or to own property.
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Privileges, on the other hand, are special freedoms and advantages only given to certain people. Up until recently, online access has been generally understood as a privilege. But as the Information Age progresses, the internet has become more integral to everyday human life -- and its essential value is being reassessed.
In a 2010 BBC poll, 80 percent of international respondents held the belief that internet access is a fundamental right. One of the greatest proponents of this idea is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has initiated a worldwide campaign to get every person on the planet online.
However, others have argued that establishing online access as a human right is a mistake. By equating internet freedom with freedom of speech, or freedom from torture, the movement devalues these other more fundamental rights, critics say.
While U.N. resolutions don't necessarily have any binding legal force, they definitely can have a strong influence on public policy. The official declaration sends a message to countries that restrict access -- like China and Egypt -- that new international standards are emerging. Interestingly, the U.N. report also targeted France and United Kingdom, both of which have passed laws revoking online access to those accused of copyright infringement.
-- Glenn McDonald
UN: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
BBC: Internet Access is 'a Fundamental Right'
Washington Post: How Easy is it to Shut Off a Country's Internet?