What are Human Rights?

Human Rights. What are they and how did we get them? This video produced by Amnesty International called, “The Story of Human Rights”, gives a very simplified overview of the history of Human Rights:

The definition of Human Rights is surely an intimidating concept to sum up in a few words. In fact, the most generally agreed upon definition, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), is just over 1,700 words long. Even with only thirty identified rights few nations are in total agreement about how these rights should be positively and negatively defined through rule of law.

Though many nations agree on the definition of Human Rights, they don’t always agree on how they should be actualized, realized, or enjoyed. Natural rights, or, as defined in the US Constitution, inalienable rights, exist the moment we are born and cannot be taken from us. However, we need tools and procedures to demand and protect our human rights.

Technology is an incredibly important tool by which we actualize our rights to freedom of expression and opinion; key components for a healthy democracy.

When you consider how people throughout the world rely on the Internet as their main source of information, the power of Internet access to educate or ostracize is growing exponentially. The connections we make via the Internet, especially through Social Networking, have already shown to be incredibly powerful. Social Networking has changed how we work, grieve, organize, and, generally, share information. These new tools are game changers when it comes to the protection of human rights. In response to global uprisings made possible by the increase in Internet access, the United Nations (UN) decided to examine how Internet access impacts the actualization of our Human Rights.

The UN published a report on May 16th 2011 by Mr. Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, declaring that Internet Access is an important channel by which Human Rights are actualized.

A short video below features Mr. La Rue discussing the findings of his report:

“Unlike any other medium, the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders.”

Mr. La Rue’s conclusions were interpreted based upon Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human RightsEveryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Let’s consider a few of the many ways we seek, receive, and impart information on the Internet:

Seek: Search engines are important ways that we access information on the Internet. If controlled or restricted they can be a substantial inhibitor in access to information. (Consider this example of Google’s Censorship in China)

Receive: Search engines are not the only way we receive information. Our friends and media sources feed us information constantly via news sites and social media.

Impart: Sharing information over social media has sparked some impressive web campaigns. Websites such as Change.Org and Avaaz.Org allow anyone to post a petition to sign and share with friends.Internet activism is on the rise, and it has proven quite effective.

A few examples that specifically show the power of Internet access to facilitate real community action and organization: The Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, self-proclaimed “Hacktivist” groups such as ANONYMOUS.

Publication of media and the concept of peer-reviewed media has become a part of every day for life for those with Internet access. The collaboration and sharing of information is essential for the development of powerful sites such as Wikipedia and also for whistleblower sites such as Wikileaks.

In the introduction to the UN report, the responsibility of Governments’ to provide and maintain access to the internet are made clear:

…[T]he Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.                                                                                 

In response to UN report, a Google V.P., Vinton G. Cerf: “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right”.

In his op-ed contribution to the New York Times, Cerf was one of few editorial voices discussing the topic of Internet access being considered a human right.  He argues that while the recent historic events of popular uprisings have a relationship to Internet access, it does not constitute the redefining of Human Rights. He makes the point that internet access is simply an “enabler” of rights, not a right in and of itself. As explained by Mr. La Rue above, this report does not define a new right, but rather defines the actualization of an already existing right in light of new technological and social developments.

The Future: Internet Access as a Human Right

The Internet has become such an integral part of everyday life that any entity which controls the content or its availability to users has a serious amount of power. A recent Pew study suggests that 75% of American’s feel that the internet meets their information needs. The potential for manipulation of this power by corporations and politicians requires users to remain aware and engaged in the censoring and accessibility of the Internet.

Users are becoming more nuanced, more familiar with technology and will continue to demand their access and freedom from censorship. As technology becomes less expensive and more accessible, it is an expectation of modern existence and people are finding ways to enjoy it and use it as a tool for expression.

Proclaim it and Defend It

The recent amount of public dialogue about S.O.P.A., P.I.P.A. and Social Media privacy settings (Facebook, Google) show that many users are alert to their rights. A recent Pew report, “Privacy Management and Social Media”, confirms that people are becoming more aware and engaged in how social media impacts their lives by managing their settings, friends, and content. We value not only the physical infrastructure required to enjoy the internet, but also our privacy and freedom in exploring it.

The Internet represents a unique opportunity for each of us to actualize our human rights; never before have we had access to so many methods of seeking, receiving and imparting information to others. This powerful tool must be wielded with a high level of respect and awareness. Modern history has shown us the power of media over the masses, through advertising and propaganda, and the Internet presents more potential than ever before for abuse, restriction and manipulation.

Before I ask you to kindly respond to the poll below, please consider this quote by one of the most respected intellectual minds, Albert Einstein:

“The search for truth is more precious than its possession.” 

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