Social media has entered into the lives of most of us. It has changed the way we receive news, the forms in which we communicate with one another, the way we seek employment and the manner in which we manifest our opinions. Newspapers, radios, televisions, Xerox machines and faxes all did some of these things, but through the internet and social media especially, these tools have been assembled into inter-connected websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, MySpace, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. Much has been written about how access to these tools should be considered a human right, how they impact them and what underlying potential they have. This blog will look at what these tools represent, what their impacts are and analyze the claim that internet access is indeed a human right.
Tools for Democracy Movements
In 2009 protests broke out in Iran after the presidential elections. These were mostly instigated by supporters of Mousavi and Karroubi, the two candidates who opposed the sitting President Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians considered to have rigged the elections and manipulated the vote. The public outrage, following the unprecedented voter turnout, was channeled into unceasing demonstrations with millions of people that lasted for approximately six months. This was in large part made possible by the ability to mobilize the public through social media, by what to some extent were loosely organized protesters. This movement was among other things dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’. This label was perhaps set too soon as there was no revolution due to the regime’s iron-fist response which finally managed to brutalize the protesters into silence. Similar outrage was ignited in 2011 after Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire and sparked the revolutions in North-Africa and demands for democracy throughout the Arab world, Iran and even China. Again social media was an essential instrument for demonstrators in order to not only assemble the public and unify them, but also through the use of cameras on cell-phone devices with internet access, they were able to document government abuses that were sent to journalists. The press publicized the images which have resulted in increased international support. This again pressured western leaders to invade the Gadhafi regime in Libya and international leaders will hopefully be shamed into acting in Syria as well. Politicians around the world have unanimously praised protesters ability to mobilize, demand that their rights be respected and in some cases chase dictators out of their country. Social media continues to be a vital tool in unrelenting protests throughout the globe.
Tools of Oppressors
The liberation of Eastern-Europe was much aided in its time by Xerox and fax machines that allowed those who fought for democracy and human rights to distribute information. Democracy movements could not use televisions (although this technology was democratized by the introduction of small video cameras) as these broadcasting agencies were owned and/or controlled by the very governments responsible for their oppression. Faxes and Xerox machines, like social media today, allowed for individuals to distribute information rather effectively. Unfortunately, these tools and other media are not immune to the use of oppressive dictators, criminal groups or terrorists. Hitler and Goebbels used every media tool available to spread mind-washing propaganda. During the Rwandan genocide Hutu extremists took over radio stations to spread hate messages and incite mass killings of Tutsis. Likewise we have seen Al-Qaeda distribute information both through television and online.
This is very much the perspective David Cameron wanted to twist to his advantage during the London riots in 2011. I will not begin a discussion on the legitimacy of the protests there, but I would rather bring attention to the similarities in the discourse used by the UK Prime Minister and authoritarian leaders. In the aftermath of the riots in London, Cameron expressed a desire to ban people from using social media, justifying this by claiming it would only be applicable to those who encouraged criminality via these instruments. This is the same invalid excuse the Chinese and the Saudi-Arabian governments use to censor websites with the collaboration of search engines such as Google and Yahoo (Google has now however taken steps in the right direction by challenging the Chinese governments hacking of activists’ Gmail accounts in China). Also Twitter has joined this club by stating they will start to remove content ‘in some countries’. These authoritarians censor what they consider to be sensitive or illegal material online, often with the excuse that it threatens national security or stability. Like David Cameron, these autocrats wish to ban people from using certain websites (be censoring social media also), only on a much larger scale. The Prime Minister has reason to direct the executive branch towards investigating criminal activities and proposing to change the law to allow the police to carry out this job as effectively as possible. There is however, no reason for banning people from using what is now a basic tool of communication, like a telephone is. Even convicted felons have the right to a use telephones and computers.
Is Access to Internet a Human Right?
This raises the question; is access to the Internet a human right? In light of the uprisings in the Arab world, the United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue went so far as to claim that the Internet had ‘become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights’. Parliaments and courts in countries like France and Estonia have gone even further and stated that access to internet IS a human right. So what is really a human right? According to one author (Vinton G. Cerf), it is ‘what humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience’. This is a definition it is easy to agree with, but I would extend and claim that human rights are something that allows humans to be free and live with dignity also. It could be somewhat far-fetched to state that internet access is a human right at the current moment. Nonetheless, in today’s society where almost innumerous amounts of professions, educations and democracy movements rely on internet access to be effective, how can we deny that it should be a universal human right?
I find it difficult to deny that the internet, and social media as part of it, is a fundamental tool for human development (which IS a human right) in today’s society. The trend of expansive internet usage is irreversible and we are absolutely dependent on this instrument to realize our potential. Some see internet access as an enabler, not an end in itself. Perhaps, but making such a distinction serves no purpose. Students who do not have internet access in current developed educational systems will experience discrimination as they will not be able to achieve the same results as those who do have such access. Businesses without internet access will be disadvantaged to say the least. Democracy movements cannot go back to the days of fax and Xerox machines. So even if these tools can be used to persecute demonstrators and to spread hate messages, they have become necessities to achieve freedom and dignity. They are means to an end, yes, but so is the tongue which we use to express ourselves. Both are necessary.Reblog