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In a TED talk I watched recently, the assertion that access to the Internet was a human right was met with thunderous applause. But most people have no idea exactly what that means.  The idea that someone has a “right” to something is often conflated with notions of “want”, or more often, “demand”.  From this we get further notions that government can grant or revoke rights, rather than acknowledge or trample upon them.  They have become social agreements rather than based in some a priori reality.  I find this view not only deficient in objectivity philosophically, but is the legislative justification by which liberty and justice are just as often denied or constrained as they are fulfilled.

So what is a “right”? 

We could say we have a right to that which we are due, but if it is merely a matter of what we deserve, we are back to the drawing board of subjective moral judgments.  What if we have a right based on needs?  If that is the case, the right to one’s life is the basis of all other rights, for if denied, there can be no discussion of rights at all.  From this right emerges a right to sustenance or by extension the means by which it may be obtained.

But this does not differentiate us from other animals, even our own pets.  They have a right to live, eat, not be abused.  And they are not concerned with captivity so long as they are housed and fed.  There is no right to marry, right to work, right to assembly, religion, speech, or political participation.  From the diminutive view described above, it is simply because they cannot demand or even communicate such things, when objectively we find that these considerations simply do not exist within the circumscribed limitations of their awareness. 

And that is why animal rights (in general) are not the same as human rights, insomuch as animals (in general) are understood to not have sentience.  What we find in human beings is an awareness of self (and specifically an awareness of that awareness) that extends our needs past the physiological to the psycho-social.  Here enters Maslow’s concept of the Hierarchy of Needs.

Whereas the larger context of group behavior in the wild is a matter of instinct tempered by Darwinian considerations, life among humans is filled with individual will that rises above the base necessities, rising from skill to science to art.  The stars do not merely light our way for hunt, nor even measure the seasons toward a necessary harvest.  We look up to ponder, to create myth, and ultimately explore the origins of existence itself. 

These things are not needs in the mundane sense, but I argue are the needs of a being that is more than flesh and bone, but mind and spirit.  But even if we deny ourselves the possibility of reality outside the literal and empirical, anthropology and history and the evening news show us that our nature (at least in appearance) relies heavily in the figurative and metaphysical.

Such consciousness being an illusion of neurophysiology or not, the ultimate, physical survival of individuals and groups is determined in no small part by things other than immediate or tactible needs.  Religion, politics, economics, and every other act of the social realm affect the very health of the body.  This is through very real psychological stress on one end, and violence and war on the other.  A right to a secure life may not be the same as the right to clean drinking water, but is arguably no less a true need given the extra layers of psycho-emotional well-being.

Where Liberty Steps In

One solution to this problem is for those able to set the conditions (by some combination of force and passive consent) to simply manage society as efficiently as possible.  This of course assumes those of noble intentions will always be at the helm.  The converse solution is to fight for and preserve a social environment in which the individual is empowered as much as possible to be free of restraint in the pursuit of their needs, so long as they do not impede anyone else’s needs.  (This might spiral into a discussion of the Greatest Good, but then we may stray too close for my comfort where the ends justify the means, negating the very rights being protected.)

This latter approach elevates liberty itself as a human right, as voiced in the philosophical (though admittedly propagandist) document, The Declaration of Independence.  Whereas the rights of the body are the most fundamental, the sovereign rights of Man are the pinnacle, the ideal by which our whole nature is respected, not merely our corporeal existence.

The Bill of Rights, more a legal document, wasn’t a laundry list of “Thou Shall Nots” directed at the individual, but a compilation of those things the Founding Fathers deemed necessary for the preservation of the highest human need — social freedom and personal self-determination through political assurance and even restraint of its own powers.

A Caveat About Rights

When I was younger, I had been told many a time by parents and judges that driving was a privilege, not a right (though I thought it ironic they call your card a “license”).  Given that I understood even back then that rights were based on needs, I saw that many people needed a car to financially survive, here meaning at a level a human being needs to physically and psychologically be well and safe.  In some places the need is not there; in others, personal transportation is much more vital.

I lost my “license” for a semester, or rather my right to drive.  Let’s put aside the fact that I personally did not need a car and got by remarkably well (and with much development of character and calves in the process).  Three speeding tickets in 18 months, according to the just sense of New York State, requires that I be deprived of such right to protect the right of other’s safety.  So even if I could argue (poorly) it was my right, it was clear that rights are not absolute. 

Another lesson that should not need learning and yet is violated every day by force of law is that one person having a right does not necessarily correspond to another’s obligation.  I have a right to eat, but not necessarily off someone else’s plate.  This is where things get sticky in matters of “social justice”.  Rights must be weighed, such as one person’s needs versus another person’s right to their own excess, even if earned.  Collective rights based on collective survival is not in the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that even if I do not have a right to demand a car from my parents or a license from the state, I have at least some right to pursue or earn the acquisition of both.

So where does the Internet fit in?

The idea of access to the Internet being a human right, with rights based on human needs, begs the question how anything that did not exist through most of mankind’s history could possibly be a right.  Did people have a right to a car before Ford put them in reach of the masses?  Of course not.  The world before cars (or electricity, or running water, or anything for that matter) was a world that did not depend on such things.  Needs are not just general notions based on basic, common needs, but the translation of these to specific needs — the means by which needs are met — are determined by the contexts of history and geography.

Technological availability determines the rules by which technology is necessary, and therefore technological availability becomes a social justice issue.  Let’s use a business analogy: Affordable overnight delivery came into existence in the 1990s.  Shortly thereafter, it became a capability by which companies who did not use it could no longer compete.  Before this time it was not an issue, and there was no need. 

Now consider education.  The masses were uneducated (outside of skills and trades) for much of history.  When mechanical printing became widely used, a whole class of people gained advantage over the rest through literacy.  When it became clear that education of the masses created benefits in society that encouraged culture to move from survival to resiliency, schools became as important as the blacksmith.  It was even formally declared as such within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

And this is where issues of disparity and equality come in, though this will not be addressed in detail here.    When some have access to physical, intellectual, and technological resources while others do not, the have-nots have a else-determined handicap.  Disparity and inequality are not necessarily unjust — not everyone pursues that which they have a right to as much or as little as the next guy — but on a larger scale can be the cause of injustice when it blocks the pursuits of some.

The Internet is such a technology.  Access to information is only the bottom of a Maslow-inspired pyramid, though perhaps we could place the ability to do business for financial gain as the undermost layer.  They are topped by the provisions for the loftier rights, such as free press, free speech, and by exercising these rights affect social change.  The Jasmine Revolution could not have taken hold without cell phones, citizen planning through Twitter, and eye-witness accountability via YouTube.

Frankly put, access to the Internet today is as important as Constitutional rights were two centuries ago, and is in fact a guarantee and culmination of them.  This is why some oppose government control of the Internet (which ironically started out as a DARPA project) the same way the NRA feels about taking guns out of their hands — and for many of the same reasons.

The Internet has not only set the current benchmark for access to necessary goods, services, and information, but to the extended rights that ensure those.   Its nature dictates there is no condition by which anyone’s access will hinder anyone else’s, hence why it is relatively free across continents filled with varying political and economic systems.  And quickly reaching global ubiquity, the disadvantage of not having access — intellectually, economically, and politically — dictates to us that it is becoming an undeniable  need, swiftly approaching the status of a human right if it is not already.

{Editor’s Note: The concepts herein are a review and application of the author’s position first written in an ethics essay in 1987.}