The Internet is a universal service

Way back in late 2010 I was lucky enough to visit the remote Google office containing the office of Vint Cerf. He wasn’t there, and apparently spends much of his time traveling, but I still felt honored to be able to see his workspace, knowing that I had the privilege of working in the same company at one time, the same cheaply printed nametag on his office wall as the one which used to mark my own cube in Mountain View.

His editorial entitled “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right” had been in the news around that time. In it, he makes a case that internet access should not be protected as a human right because it is not necessary “in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives”. He compares internet access to owning a horse: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse.”

To that end, I agree. It’s important to make the distinction between the underlying tool and the service which it provides. Cerf says as much: “Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right. But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.” But the comparison to Estonia is where I think Cerf goes awry.

Vint Cerf is thinking at a low level. When he hears “internet” he knows that it means IP and UDP and TCP, most of the time with HTTP or SMTP or SPDY or various other technologies layered on top. And of course, anyone who knows these technologies can reasonably understand that it’s silly to base a definition of human rights on these fleeting and imperfect technology specifications.

In fact, Estonia’s Constitution makes no such reference to a specification or even the word “internet” in its “human rights” section. The closest it gets is:

§ 45. Everyone has the right to freely disseminate ideas, opinions, beliefs and other information by word, print, picture or other means. This right may be restricted by law to protect public order, morals, and the rights and freedoms, health, honour and good name of others. This right may also be restricted by law for state and local government civil servants, to protect a state or business secret or information received in confidence, which has become known to them by reason of their office, and the family and private life of others, as well as in the interests of justice.

There is no censorship.

In 1992, when a still-fledgling Estonian Parliament put this document together, they weren’t superficially concerned with the ability to search, or to email, or to watch video. The issue of censorship was a very real thing, as the country had come out from a restrictive Soviet occupation where the spread of information was controlled in order to exert the will of the government. The right to information is protected in Estonia.

It wasn’t until 2000 when a much more specific Telecommunications Act guaranteed “Internet service which universally available to all subscribers regardless of their geographical location, at a uniform price;” in addition to other specifics, such as 3.1 kHz telephone services, as a set of “universal services”. In case you were curious:

A universal service is a set of telecommunications services which conforms with the technical and quality requirements established by the Government of the Republic and which ensures, within an area determined in the license of a public telephone operator, that all customers who wish to have access to the public telephone network shall have such access for a uniform and reasonable consideration.

An admirable provision to a relatively mundane act, but certainly not an inalienable human right on the level of any of the provisions of the United States’ Bill of Rights.

The whole point of this isn’t to prove Vint Cerf wrong, or put myself and some rudimentary Googling up on a pedestal - I still agree with his argument, and I owe my entire career (and more!) to his brilliant work. But I think that to condemn Estonia for not understanding the difference between technology and the human rights it enables is misguided—they made the same distinction, if not more elegantly, almost twelve years before Cerf’s editorial was published.

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