The Internet as a Human Right?

President Obama has declared that access to the world of information, via the Internet, should be considered a basic human right. This is, of course, something you’d expect me to agree with. In The Transparent Society I made a case for such openness based on multiple levels:

1- It is morally and ethically imperative.

2- It is the best way to achieve justice.

3- Our basic societal “organs”- including fair markets, democracy, science and even art function better when all players can make decisions based upon full knowledge.

4- It creates a situation in which Enlightenment Civilization will ultimately “win.”

Now, we’re being a bit redundant here, since desiderata 1,2&3 are only positive things from the viewpoint of people who are members of an Enlightenment Civilization. These traits are not orthogonal. Even the way some of you reacted to point number four — by frowning over my chosen words, my notion of one civilization “winning” against its competitors — even that reaction is itself a trait of having been raised in the Enlightenment’s modern liberal societies.

Few cultures ever saw moral fault in hoping for their own success, at the expense of others. Survival was a zero-sum game, until the Enlightenment discovered positive sum virtues.

The ultimate irony is that, in order for positive-sum thinking to prevail in the future world of our children – and for diversity to reign in peace – the overall worldview of enlightenment values (values that appreciate diversity) will have to “win” in the most general sense. Freedom – and especially the freedom to know and to speak that is embodied in the internet – must prevail… and those forces that restrict freedom must fail.

This is why the world’s despotic regimes reacted so negatively to President Obama’s assertion of a right to internet access. They know that:

a) open information flows, especially a secular trend toward more transparency worldwide, will be inherently lethal to their mode of rule, and

b) increases in light flowing over fully engaged enlightenment nations and their institutions only makes them stronger. Sure, some doses of light can be inconvenient to individual leaders, parties or clades. But the overall societies only get healthier.

Let’s deal with each of these assertions.

Transparency as an Openly Aggressive Weapon Against Despots

We begin by quoting liberally from a recent article in WIRE-online.

”When Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s internet and cellphone communications, it seemed that all U.S. officials could do was ask him politely to change his mind. But the American military does have a second set of options, if it ever wants to force connectivity on a country against its ruler’s wishes. There’s just one wrinkle. “It could be considered an act of war,” says John Arquilla, a leading military futurist and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“The U.S. military has no shortage of devices — many of them classified — that could restore connectivity to a restive populace cut off from the outside world by its rulers. It’s an attractive option for policymakers who want an option for future Egypts, between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. And it might give teeth to the Obama administration’s demand that foreign governments consider internet access an inviolable human right.

“Consider the Commando Solo, the Air Force airborne broadcasting center. A revamped cargo plane, the Commando Solo beams out psychological operations in AM and FM for radio, and UHF and VHF for TV. Arquilla doesn’t want to go into detail how the classified plane could get a denied internet up and running again, but if it flies over a bandwidth-denied area, suddenly your Wi-Fi bars will go back up to full strength. That leads to another possibility: “Just give people Thuraya satellite phones,” says John Pike of The cheapish phones hunt down signals from space hardware.”

I’ve been talking about this concept with John Arquilla and his colleagues for many years. Back in 2001 – at the CIA and several defense agencies – I described more than a dozen methods to cheaply spread key elements of an international civil society into closed or despotic nations, in ways almost-guaranteed to create win-win situations and to corner tyrants, at little risk to ourselves. I cannot claim that the tools listed above originated with those speeches. (I get contradictory reports about that, and in the end it doesn’t matter.) Still, I am glad there’s been movement in the right direction.

There are many other measures, not listed in the WIRED piece, that can be effective across a wide range of circumstances. At one extreme – that of open but not-yet-violent hostility — calls for particular and peculiar aggressiveness. During the run-up to the latest Iraq war, at the same meeting where I proposed most of the measures listed in the WIRED article, I also suggested the ultimate in people-empowering and tyrant-disempowering technologies…

…developing and then dropping into such a nation several million “volksradios” that would provide Iraqis with an entirely separate system of packet-switched conversation, outside the dictator’s control. Also, incidentally, such a system would provide our intelligence services with vast amounts of information on the ground.

(This is related to my civil defense proposal to make western countries more robust, but simply enabling our cell phones to pass text messages on a peer-to-peer basis. To read about much simpler-cruder methods, have a look here.)

Of course, over the long run, we’d rather not let it come to that. Dropping in several million gifts to a nation’s citizens may not be an act of war – I defy anyone to make that case. But it certainly is a pugnacious violation of sovereignty. So is the freezing of a regime’s foreign assets.

From the Washington Post: How the U.S. Treasury Department froze Libyan assets. They expected $100 million, but found over $30 billion — mostly all in one bank. To put this in perspective: In 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion.

Say what? Thirty billion dollars? If this cash pile is matched by similar revelations re Egypt and Tunisia and other toppled despotisms, can you doubt that economic transparency will become a truly radical cause during the twenty-teens. Perhaps even as much as I predicted back in 1989, in my novel EARTH?

Only, in this case, we’re talking about a “radicalism of reasonableness.” A militancy of moderation. A fervent and dynamic worldwide call for governments and corporations and oligarchs and rulers and economies and everybody simply to play fair. Compete fair. To rule fairly, the way Adam Smith and F. Hayek and nearly all cogent economists of left and right agree we must, if society is to be healthy at all.

A radicalism that Louis Brandeis spoke of when he prescribed the one thing that keeps a society healthy. “Light is the best disinfectant.”

== The Other Assertion: Light Only Makes us Stronger ===

I’ve long-delayed my “WikiLeaks Analysis.” Events are still surging along. But one aspect that Julian Assange surely never expected – when he spilled a quarter of a million State Department cables upon the world – was the degree to which this leak helped Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, at the exact moment when they needed maximum credibility in the developing world, and especially among Arab youth. The overall positive impression given by those cables — of skilled American professionals who despised the despots they had to deal with — overwhelmed all the tiny embarrassments that Assange expected to send heads rolling, in Foggy Bottom.

The crux effect of this openness (one that I predicted at that 2001 speech, and since then) was to so enhance American influence at a vital moment, that I expect the Secretary of State – if she had a chance – would give Julian Assange a great big hug.

This doesn’t prove assertion #b. But it is highly indicative. Indeed, there is only one thing that prevents our skilled professionals, diplomats and political leaders from doing the obvious. From eagerly embracing a broad, general secular trend toward a world with few secrets as the surest way to accomplish their goal — a “win” for the overall civilization that employs them.

Alas, that one thing is a biggie: human nature.



Filed under technology

5 responses to “The Internet as a Human Right?

  1. This argument for spreading the Internet makes good sense. While libertarianism isn’t always practical, it’s an ideal that we need to approach, and the Internet can push us in that direction, if we don’t get swamped by the flood of rubbish to be found there.

    We get the society that we’ve earned.

  2. Pingback: Frictionless information flow as an Elightenment tool « A Man With A Ph.D.

  3. Pingback: Frictionless information flow as an Enlightenment tool « A Man With A Ph.D.

  4. Sir,
    While I agree in principle and I suspect you would receive wide agreement from others, the notion of using the internet is far and away a different matter than making ‘connecting’ to the internet a right. The cost alone of running high volume data cables into the wilderness will very soon limit the ardour with which advocates endorse this right. Yes, everyone should be able to use the internet freely and without state impediment. However, the internet remains a tool of the employed, with disposable income, and access to that ever necessary ‘pipe’.

    Kind regards,

  5. Janus Daniels

    Once the Internet exists, if we do not treat Internet as a human right, what happens to human rights?

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