The Right to Connect: Universal Internet Access

Rupal Desai, International Affairs '11 April 14, 2011 Opinion 0

In the United States, one often sends so many text messages, accepts (or rejects) so many Facebook “friend requests,” and reads so many tweets that social media can feel banal. Whether at home, in class, at work, or in transit, North Americans are constantly connected. However, the boundaries of the Internet and communication are no longer restricted solely for social purposes, nor have they been for quite some time. The last two decades have seen the Internet emerge as a medium to voice public dissent.  Yet, autocratic regimes are quickly realizing the use of the Internet by political opposition has the power to effectively weaken or even bring about the upheaval of their governments. Now, the question remains as the whether the right to Internet will be protected in order to provide oppressed people freedom, or if it will continue to be manipulated by authoritarian governments.

Most recently, the significant number of protests in the Middle East and North Africa has added a new dynamic to global Internet communication. During the 2009 elections in Iran, the government repressed traditional forms of media and attempted to corrupt election results behind closed doors. In response, the Iranian population utilized the Internet as an alternative medium through which they could voice their disagreement to the world. In this year alone we have seen the brazen behavior of the Egyptian and Tunisian governments to completely block Internet access in order to impede the organization of political opposition and silence objectionable behavior. Moreover, many countries such as China, Iran and Tunisia have been known to use the Internet for economic and innovative design purposes, yet employ strict surveillance for personal uses. Draconian limits are placed on what content citizens can access, transmit via cell phones and post on the Internet, in order to suppress political dissent and allegations of corrupt governments. Cuba has gone so far as to create a limited national intranet system, which allows Cubans to narrowly access a national e-mail system, Cuban encyclopedia, and only those websites that endorse the government.[i]

The United States has made clear their position on government crackdowns on political criticism via Internet technology. President Obama maintains the position that access to the Internet and social networks are a universal value, comparable to free speech. In recent weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has mapped out the Internet Freedom Agenda[ii], stating it would be in the best interest of all nations to open up Internet access. Clinton opined, “The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs—these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog. The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace.”[iii] Nations around the world are clearly in agreement: as early as 2000 Estonia explicitly declared the “right to connect” a human right.  France followed soon after with the same pronouncement; in the past year Finland passed legislation that guarantees each citizen a broadband connection.[iv] While Clinton recognizes the Internet can provide a forum for hateful ideas and offensive material, she emphasizes the multitude of benefits it can provide in the areas of economic, political, and social discussions. The principle challenge, she emphasizes, is finding equilibrium between liberty and security in terms of Internet regulation; “Without security, liberty is fragile. Without liberty, security is oppressive.”[v] Of primary importance in her statements are the condemnation of those governments that have repressed the right of their citizens to access the Internet in a worthwhile manner, and consequently impinging upon their natural rights.

Courtesy of Neil Parekh via Flickr

Clinton’s words are all fine and well, but can only be viewed as contradictory when the most the United States could do in the face of Egypt’s Internet outage was to condemn Hosni Mubarak’s actions and demand a reopening of servers. Mubarak’s blatant disregard for American  demands clearly illustrates the flaws in maintaining a purely diplomatic approach to protecting this universal right. Clinton’s plan generated interest and allocated funding to implement tools which would allow public activists to override Internet censorship in areas where their online rights are repressed.

In truth, the U.S. military already has the capability to force connectivity in countries where it has been blocked.[vi] The Air Force’s EC-130J aircraft, essentially airborne radio and television stations, have the ability to fly over a bandwidth-denied area and override the local connection it to broadcast its own signal – thus restoring bandwidth access.[vii] Additionally, private companies have created programs for the Army that affix cellular pods to the bottom of drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, creating a several-kilometer-wide radius of 3G wireless network coverage.[viii] While many are still classified, these instruments have the ability to add an air of legitimacy to the United States’ demands for universal Internet access.  In the case of Egypt, use of these tools to enable Egyptian citizens to connect could be seen as a humanitarian act on the part of the United States, as the two nations have long been allies, thus allying the U.S. government with the Egyptian people. Though the apprehensiveness of the government to use them is legitimate, as they would inevitably be seen as an act of “cyber warfare” in certain circumstances, the continued infringement on civil rights cannot be ignored.

Despite the fact that the United States has tried to extend its diplomatic hand in opening all methods of internet and communications to citizens of the world, oppressive regimes will do little until an actual threat is produced. A threat, in this instance, of a nation such as the United States using technological and/or military capabilities to provide Internet to people whose governments deny them of that right. It is imperative to proceed with caution, especially with new terms floating around such as “cyber attack” and “cyber war”. There is an undeniable need for a more aggressive position.

Internet capabilities will not be widely available to everyone until the United States packs more punch behind its demand that foreign governments consider the right to the Internet an undeniable human right. This concept is not a far fetched idea, in fact, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that, “everyone 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.”[ix]

Despite the ever-changing nature of our world, it remains quite clear that all citizens of the world are entitled to the “right to connect”.  The refusal of governments to provide their citizens with unrestricted access to the Internet is a violation of the freedom of expression, a violation of human rights warranting a global response to protect it, by imposing Internet connectivity if necessary. Without this dynamic, Clinton’s statements calling for an Internet culture in symmetry with, “liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, and freedom and tolerance” is little more than a muted whine by the United States, in desperate need of some teeth.


[i] Azel, José. “Cuba’s Internet repression equals groupthink”. Miami Herald. http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/02/27/2085943/cubas-internet-repression-equals.html.

[ii] U.S. Department of State. “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices & Challenges in a Networked World”. Available online from: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156619.htm.

[iii] See note 2 above.

[iv] The Economist. “Reaching for the kill switch”. The Economist Newspaper Limited. http://www.economist.com/node/18112043?story_id=18112043.

[v]5 See note 2 above.

[vi] Ackerman, Spencer. “U.S. Has Secret Tools to Force Internet on Dictators.”Wired.com. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/02/secret-tools-force-net/.

[vii] Hodge, Nathan. “Inside the Air Force’s Secret PsyOps Plane”. Wired.com. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/05/inside-the-air-forces-secret-psyops-plane/.

[viii]8 see note 6 above.

[ix] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. United Nations. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.

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