Vint Cerf knows the internet. He co-created it in its baby military form, and he nows serves as Google’s “Internet Evangelist”. You might be surprised, then, when he says the internet isn’t a human right — but he’s correct.
Cerf’s spiel, the entirety of which is worth reading at the New York Times, boils down to this: Human rights are things fundamental to our wellbeing as humans. Things that allow us not only to survive, but to flourish as a species: clean water, not being raped, expressing our thoughts without reprisal. These rights can be chiselled in stone and would make as much sense 500 years ago as 500 years from now. Why? They have nothing to do with tech — though that doesn’t mean tech’s not part of the picture:
Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself… It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. 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. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
This is spot on. The internet is currently an indispensable part of enabling free speech — but it’s not free speech itself. Someday, there will be no internet, because we’ll be using something better. So to look back and see that we once enshrined it on the same plane as life, liberty and the pursuit of a bunch of nice things will be pretty embarrassing.
This doesn’t mean give up on making the internet great and accessible, says Cerf:
Improving the internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection – without pretending that access itself is such a right.
It’s a matter of priorities. Let’s worry about people who are literally starving before we worry about getting them Twitter so they can talk about it. [NYT]